Late last month—just before Trump hit his 100-day mark—the Department of Homeland Security launched a new database in which anyone in the country, or indeed anyone in the world, can find the names of immigrants deemed by our government to be “alien offenders.” This term ostensibly refers to people who have committed a crime, and this list will be of putative use to those they have harmed. In reality, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly has been open about the political motives behind this project: The victims of the immigrants in question “are casualties of crimes that should never have taken place—because the people who victimized them often times should not have been in the country in the first place,” he said in April.
The database—the work of the new DHS Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, or VOICE—is a poor tool for fighting crime, not least because immigrants offend at far lower rates than native-born Americans. But it appears well-calibrated to help Trump and Kelly achieve their real aims, which are to project an image of immigrants as gun-toting gangsters and to make the case for the president’s pointless border wall.
If only this commitment to a flagrantly false narrative were the worst thing about the new database, called the Victim Information and Notification Exchange, or DHS-VINE. But it’s not. When attorneys at the Falls Church, Virginia–based Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that works with immigrant survivors of violence, first searched VINE several weeks ago, they were alarmed to find the names and information of many of their clients—survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual assault—posted for all the world to see. Along with a person’s name, VINE publicizes the precise facility where she’s being detained and the day on whch she’ll be released. How this aids crime victims remains opaque; how it assists traffickers and abusers, on the other hand, is clear.
VINE, as the L.A. Times has reported, appears to scoop up any immigrant who ICE has detained: It doesn’t differentiate people whose only offense is their presence in this country without legal status. Nor does the list distinguish between immigrants who’ve been convicted of crimes and those who’ve only been charged—situations that Trump’s executive orders have notably conflated. When it first went live, VINE even included entries for unaccompanied migrant children being held in custody; after an outcry, DHS introduced a filter to shield the information of anyone under 18.
In risking people’s safety for some anti-immigrant P.R., the administration may be breaking the law. On Thursday, Tahirih’s chief of policy and programs, Archi Pyati, wrote to ICE demanding that survivors’ information be scrubbed from VINE. As she points out, the U.S. sets aside a special group of visas and green cards for victims of trafficking and violent crime (the T visa, which is for trafficking victims; the U visa, for victims of other serious crimes, including domestic violence and sexual assault; and the VAWA self-petition, for spouses of abusive U.S. citizens or permanent residents). Unlike Trump’s VOICE Office, these serve a real purpose in promoting public safety: They allow victims to testify against violent offenders who might otherwise walk free.
These remedies come with much-needed privacy protections. Not surprisingly, perpetrators often try to silence the only voice that could speak against them in court, either through violence or by having the person deported before a case can get off the ground. An American University study found that abusers or their family members called ICE on undocumented victims in more than a quarter of U visa cases and almost 40 percent of VAWA self-petitions. ICE isn’t supposed to use these tips, since doing so only gives abusers more power—though they’ve been accused of violating that rule. For the same reason, U.S. immigration law prohibits anyone in government—including the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security themselves—from disclosing information about an immigrant who is applying for one of these visas or green cards to someone other than “a sworn officer or employee of the Department…for legitimate Department, bureau, or agency purposes.” VINE, which makes crucial details available to anyone, anywhere, with an internet connection, appears to fail those criteria.
ICE did not respond to direct questions about whether VINE might be in violation of the law, or about what steps could be taken to protect survivors’ privacy. “ICE continually strives to ensure that information protected both by policy and law is never divulged,” ICE spokesperson Thomas Byrd said in an emailed statement. “When the agency receives evidence suggesting that non-releasable information is unintentionally available, immediate actions are taken to ensure proper mitigation both to correct and to prevent further disclosures.”
A previous letter from Tahirih to ICE went unanswered earlier this month. Now, if DHS can’t figure out how to remove these legally protected visa-seekers from VINE, Tahirih is demanding that the whole database come down no later than the end of the week. It remains to be seen if and how the administration will respond. But it wouldn’t be the first time that Trump and Kelly overlooked a pesky statute and were forced to beat a hasty retreat.