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The Biden administration will convert a government office created by former President Donald Trump that had assisted Americans who were victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants to focus instead on helping immigrants who are crime victims.
The move is one of two major changes, along with speeding up the visa process for immigrant victims, announced over the past week that would place a greater emphasis on caring for immigrant victims who may be scared or confused about how to report crimes. It marks another 180-degree change in policy and tone from Trump's staunchly anti-illegal immigration messaging.
Michelle Root said Tuesday that she relied on the since-shuttered Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office after she lost her daughter Sarah in 2016, when her vehicle was struck by a drunk driver who was street racing in Nebraska. The driver, Eswin Mejia, was identified as an illegal immigrant and remains at large since making bail.
“It was nice to have the VOICE Office to call [and] get any updates on anything dealing with Eswin Mejia,” Root said in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “Other families that I know that use the VOICE office, they felt the same way.”
Last week, Biden officials announced that VOICE would transition into the Victims Engagement and Services Line. VOICE’s mission to provide resources to family members and victims of crimes perpetrated by illegal immigrants would now be changed to focus on advocating for immigrants in federal detention who wish to report abuse concerns.
The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said Tuesday that the move “appeared designed to dismantle it." Former acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf claimed the new administration "appears more interested in promoting illegal immigration than about the victims and their families who were impacted by crimes committed by removable criminal aliens."
The original immigrant crime office stood up by Trump did not take off as expected and kept a low profile for the past four years, said Evangeline Chan, a New York City-based lawyer who works with immigrants who have been victims of crimes. She said there were not enough calls into VOICE from victims of crimes by immigrants to justify the program.
“We had seen from the very beginning of the Trump campaign use of rhetoric that correlated crime and drugs with undocumented individuals in the country,” said Chan, director of Safe Horizon’s Immigration Law Project, the largest victim services organization in the country. "This shift in focus is to be more inclusive and focus on providing services to victims of all kinds of crime, perpetrated by anybody, regardless of their immigration status."
The language barrier, fear of deportation, and cultural norms often prevent immigrants from seeking out the help of law enforcement. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the office will ensure that "all people, regardless of their immigration status, should be able to access victim services without fear."
In 1990, a new visa was rolled out as a way to incentivize immigrants to speak up about crimes they witnessed or were involved in as victims. In return, they would receive documents to work in the country for four years, as well as live in the country legally. Ten thousand visas were made available annually, but the program cannot keep up with the surge of immigrants who apply every year for protection, an indication of just how many immigrants are themselves victims of crime, including by members of their communities.
"There has been a huge increase of people coming forward who have been the victims of crime, particularly serious and violent crimes, and have been applying for protection, and because of that, there is a huge backlog in new visa cases that are currently pending right now," said Chan, whose organization worked with 1,000 such victims last year.
However, so many have come forward in recent years that 270,000 applications are waiting to be decided. The Biden administration has vowed to speed up the review process so that people can receive protection from deportation while they wait on the ultimate visa decision, which takes an average of 10 to 11 years.
Chan said a work permit and potential visa a decade down the road offers a little consolation to people who have gone through terrible experiences as crime victims.
"We've had clients really fearful while they wait [for a visa decision] because they can at any time be subject to ICE enforcement. They can be placed in removal proceedings. They can be removed from the country. They can be separated from their families," said Chan. "They really have their lives in limbo while they wait, and at the very least, giving them the opportunity to work while they're in this country is a great first step."
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Original Author: Anna Giaritelli
Original Location: Biden shifts focus of crime victims office from citizens to immigrants