This Is What It Looks Like When the President Asks People to Snitch on Their Neighbors

Illustration by Jim Cooke/GMG
Illustration by Jim Cooke/GMG
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In April, the Trump Administration launched what it called the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) hotline, with a stated mission to “provide proactive, timely, adequate, and professional services to victims of crimes committed by removable aliens.” But internal logs of calls to VOICE obtained by Splinter show that hundreds of Americans seized on the hotline to lodge secret accusations against acquaintances, neighbors, or even their own family members, often to advance petty personal grievances.

The logs—hundreds of which were available for download on the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement web site despite containing extremely sensitive personal information—call to mind the efforts of closed societies like East Germany or Cuba to cultivate vast networks of informants and an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

The reports rarely involve the sort of dangerous criminality that Donald Trump campaigned against. Despite the VOICE office’s statement that the service “is not a hotline to report crime,” callers are using it to alert Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to minor infractions, or merely to the presence of people they suspect of being undocumented immigrants.

On many of the calls, the only violation the informant offers the authority is that the people exist. On June 19, a caller filed the following report:

Caller wanted to report his next door neighbor. Caller claims his next door neighbors are undocumented and are from South America. Caller claims two boys’ ages 14 and 15 reside there along with an adult male. Caller provided his next door neighbor’s address as [street and number redacted by Splinter], St. Augustine, FL [ZIP code redacted by Splinter].

The summaries are drawn from two spreadsheets documenting incoming calls to the VOICE hotline. The first, provided to Splinter by ICE in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, covers the first two weeks of the hotline’s operation in April. It was redacted by ICE to protect the privacy of callers and subjects.

But after conducting Google searches for some data in that spreadsheet, including local police report numbers provided by callers, we were able to find a second spreadsheet, covering April to mid-August, hosted on the ICE web site. That spreadsheet appears to have been partially redacted to prepare it for release under the FOIA, but two columns containing intimate personal details—names, cell phone numbers, alleged crimes, addresses, and Social Security numbers—of both callers and the alleged undocumented immigrants they were calling about remained completely unredacted and publicly available. In several cases, the details would make it possible for people to figure out who informed on them.

Brendan Raedy, an ICE spokesperson, declined a request to speak on the phone about the logs or the publication of private data. In response to a series of emailed questions, he wrote only: “It’s important to know that ICE/VOICE is not using victim personal information to develop leads for immigration enforcement. Callers are not even asked for their status. Information is shared with Victim Assistance Specialists to help when and where they can.”

Together, the logs are a grim running diary of a country where people eagerly report their fellow residents to the authorities, or seek to bring the power of the immigration police to bear on family disputes. On May 25, 2017, one man called to say that his stepson was violating a restraining order by parking his car near his house. He didn’t want his wife to know that he was trying to get her son deported:

Caller stated the illegal alien (step-son) is a drug addict, unemployed, homeless and living in his car that he parks at [address redacted by Splinter]. Caller stated the subject is a danger to society and wants to know why he was not taken into ICE custody. Caller stated the subject recently missing his court hearing [number and date redacted by Splinter] and is now in probation violation. Caller provided A number, name [redacted by Splinter], DOB, and COB. Caller stated he does not want his wife to know and prefers not to be reached at his cell number [redacted by Splinter] that he shares with her.

Other complaints likewise focused on family strife:

Caller requested to report her mother-in law and sister-in law. Caller stated these individuals came to the U.S. as tourists and stayed in the U.S. in order to get legal status.

Caller stated the undocumented individual is destroying her family and is committing adultery.

Caller requested to report his ex wife that is undocumented as an overstayed on her visa.

Caller requested to report the illegal alien because the illegal alien will not let her see [her] granddaughter.

One caller went so far as to provide the date and location of an upcoming divorce hearing at which the accused undocumented immigrant was scheduled to appear.

A number of calls, in line with the VOICE program’s mission to assist crime victims, recount domestic violence committed by undocumented immigrants. But there are also multiple calls from people hoping to turn ICE enforcement against the people who have accused them of domestic violence:

Caller requested to report an undocumented alien who is accusing him of domestic violence in order to obtain legal status. Caller claims subject is his legal wife.

Caller wanted to know how to report an illegal marriage (sham marriage) with an immigration benefit involved. Caller stated that the subject [name redacted by Splinter] pressed domestic violence charges against her in order to receive a Visa.

Caller claimed subject made false accusations of domestic violence towards the caller. Caller claimed subject is trying to claim Asylum through the false accusation of domestic violation in order for subject to stay in the U.S.

Javier H. Valdés, the co-executive director of the immigration-rights group Make the Road New York, wrote in an email to Splinter that the logs demonstrate VOICE was little more than an attempt to sow fear and suspicion of immigrants. “Months after the creation of the VOICE program, it’s clear that it’s exactly what we feared it would be,” he wrote. “A sinister public relations ploy to paint immigrants as criminals and foster fear in our communities, all with the despicable goal of tearing apart our families. The program should be immediately ended.”

Publicly, the VOICE hotline is not supposed to be a crime-reporting tool at all, but a means of connecting victims and witnesses in existing cases with support services and with more information about the people accused. But internal training materials for the hotline, obtained by Splinter, contradict that mission statement, saying that the hotline “will provide a means for persons to report suspected criminal activity.”

Callers were often referred to the Homeland Security Investigations tipline. In several cases, VOICE employees contacted a field office to relay information gleaned from the calls, records show.

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In the first two weeks of the program, from April 26 to May 10, the logs show that the call center handled 1,940 calls from across the country. Most were pranks, or in the bureaucratic words of the record keepers, “concerned citizens,” who unleashed streams of profanity or talked about green aliens until the operator hung up.

In 66 calls, the caller mentioned a criminal suspect, and VOICE staff were able to match that suspect to the Department of Homeland Security’s database. More than twice as many calls—137 entries—involved a caller reporting someone whose information did not appear in the database.

Absence from the database could mean that subject of the call is undocumented but has not yet come into contact with the agency, or that the person is in the United States legally.

Tipsters often provided claims that were unverifiable, incorrect, or vague. The incompletely redacted spreadsheet of calls on the ICE website, which included identifying information for the people being accused and for the callers themselves, showed how haphazard the accusations could be.

One caller, for instance, complained that her granddaughter was living in Florida with an undocumented immigrant, and further alleged that the immigrant was a sex offender. The suspect, the caller said, was in the process of receiving United States citizenship. Public records for the unredacted address in the call log did identify a middle-aged man with a Latino name living there, but not one who was listed on a sex-offender registry.

Beyond family strife, callers also sought to involve ICE in business disputes. One caller made an immigration complaint against an employee on a work visa at a ballroom-dance studio who was allegedly trying to start her own studio and lure customers away. Callers accused undocumented people of working at painting companies, a drywall installer, a demolition firm, a luxury resort, a foundry, a dairy, an alehouse, a Subway, and an “adult entertainment club.” They provided addresses, names, and sometimes even specific working hours.

Some people appeared to go to great lengths to deliver information to the feds. One caller, seeking to report a pair of supposedly undocumented workers, provided full names and aliases for both of them, along with the make, color, and license plate of the car the used, and the facts that they worked on a farm and attended a particular Planet Fitness gym “in the afternoons.” Nowhere did the report include any claims of criminal activity beyond the alleged use of false documents.

Another caller claimed to have overheard “a neighbor mention during an argument that subject (1)...has an order of removal with immigration.” The subject’s boyfriend, the caller said, was also undocumented, and the caller supplied the address where the two lived.

Others sought to inform on complete strangers:

Caller stated that he wanted to report (2) two people who are using EBT cards to purchase wine and steak in Sacramento (CA). Caller did not have any information on the subjects. Caller wanted to know if he can make a citizens arrest if he sees this happening again.

Another provided precise GPS coordinates for a “camp” of allegedly undocumented people in Nevada.

Even as Homeland Security employees were assembling these files of sensitive information, they were leaving a spreadsheet of it accessible online. Some who had called the hotline were alarmed, when contacted by Splinter, to learn their information had been left exposed.

Jerrold Kestenberg, of Nahant, Massachusetts, called the line to give a report about an undocumented Italian neighbor who he says attacked his girlfriend. His girlfriend’s name was published in the call log, along with the address of the neighbor and Kestenberg’s phone number. “I’m not too happy about it, shit, I mean, I don’t think she wanted that. I didn’t want them to put it out there, just look into it,” he said when we called him.

“I don’t think they got their shit together over there to be honest, pardon my English,” he said about ICE. Had he heard back from anyone about his initial call? “Nobody ever called me back,” he said. “Nobody.”

Some people on the spreadsheet said they had gotten callbacks from ICE. A California woman who asked to remain anonymous contacted the hotline after she said her undocumented Mexican husband sexually molested her 11-year-old daughter. She told Splinter that ICE has contacted her via email about her call, but she said she did not understand how her phone number and police report information were published online. “That’s news to me, they sure didn’t tell me that,” she said. “They told me it was private.” Her husband’s name and work address were also published, and she said she worries for her safety if he finds out that she filed a report with ICE.

A prominent victims’ rights group condemned the fact that the information was publicly viewable.

“If you’ve got information that was efficient enough to allow any member of the public to locate and contact a victim of crime, that system ought to be shut down. That’s a phenomenal security breach,” said Richard Barajas, a former federal judge who is the Executive Director of National Organization for Victim Assistance. “Safeguards must be in place to protect the victim of the crime primarily, and also for simply criminal justice safety, in the name and location of the perpetrator.”

At press time, more than three days after we had notified an ICE spokesperson about the personal information in the exposed spreadsheet and 22 hours after we had sent them the specific link to it, the information was still available on the agency’s web site.

UPDATE (Oct. 4): Several hours after this story was published, the entire online library of FOIA documents from ICE—all the public records that the agency has ever released—went offline. An error message informs users that the library “is temporarily unavailable while it undergoes review.” A link to the unprotected spreadsheet still appears in Google results but the link currently leads to a “File not found” message.

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