ICE boosts staff as tip line sees more action

The tipster called in to report his ex-girlfriend.
For years, the man had known the woman was in the country without proper documentation. But the relationship had recently ended, and he decided to alert federal immigration authorities that his ex had overstayed a visa, and now was living and working in the United States without documentation.
As the caller relayed details about his ex’s employment and address, a telephone operator took notes in an unremarkable brick office building a few hundred yards from a Bed, Bath & Beyond in Williston.
The Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line began as an initiative designed to crack down on child predators in 2003. It has since expanded into a catchall hotline for a broad range of tips, including reporting undocumented immigrants, to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Calls to the tip line from around the country and world are answered by workers in Williston.
While ICE says there have been no changes in the program under the Trump administration, staffing was bolstered with contract employees last year and the number of tips has increased by 27 percent.
Civil liberties advocates have raised concerns about tip lines that solicit reports from the public.
“They turn neighbors and everyday people into an extension of ICE,” said Arjun Sethi, an activist and civil rights lawyer at Georgetown Law School in Washington.
On its website, ICE invites members of the public to report “suspicious criminal activity” to the Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line. The program also plays a role in immigration enforcement. Customs and Border Patrol, another branch of the Department of Homeland Security, refers people seeking to report “illegal aliens” to call the same tip line. From inside the U.S. and Canada, tips can be called into a toll-free 866 number. For callers from the rest of the world, the number begins with Vermont area code 802.
President Donald Trump has aggressively enforced immigration laws and has instituted a zero tolerance policy for immigrants entering the U.S. without authorization. In the past six weeks, more than 2,500 children, including babies and toddlers, were separated from their families in a crackdown that has prompted widespread outrage. In late June, Trump stopped the practice under pressure from advocacy groups, law enforcement officials and members of Congress from both parties. He  promised to reunite the children and parents. In lieu of the separation policy, the president has said entire families will be detained at military bases.
One of Trump’s first actions as president was to sign an executive order that boosted the ranks of ICE officers and dramatically expanded the categories of undocumented immigrants considered a priority for removal from the country. Under the Obama administration, the agency focused on expelling immigrants with criminal convictions.
ICE was directed by the president to prioritize the arrest of any undocumented immigrant who faced criminal charges for any offense, who “abused” public benefits programs or who poses “a risk to public safety or national security.” In 2017, the first year after Trump took office, national immigration arrests increased by 30 percent.
ICE spokesperson Matthew Bourke said the tip line program hasn’t changed in the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump presidency.
Data from ICE, however, shows that the number of calls has increased by 27 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The program took in 129,890 calls in fiscal 2016. In the year since Trump took office, the total rose to 165,285. Two-thirds of the way into the current fiscal year, the tip line has received more than 100,000 calls.
Bourke said the demands on the tip line may merit bringing new resources to the program. “As ICE has observed a steady increase in tips, ICE will evaluate the need to increase staffing or invest in more technology,” he said in an email.
Late last year ICE did just that. It bolstered the program’s staff of 34 full-time federal employees — all of whom are located in Williston, according to Bourke — with an additional 20 customer service representatives hired by a Maryland contractor to work in Vermont.
In an announcement about the contract last November, Integral Consulting Services Inc. said the representatives would “service ICE’s internal and external law enforcement customers and the public by answering calls and reviewing, analyzing, and processing tips for further action.”
Integral Consulting Services did not respond to multiple interview requests. A subcontractor on the project, XLA, also did not respond to multiple calls. Federal records show Integral Consulting Services received a six-month-long contract last September for call center support services in Williston from ICE. The award was for $592,351.
The Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line was established in 2003 as part of an international initiative to crack down on child predators, according to Bourke. Since then, the mission has expanded. Today, the tip line takes complaints from the public on more than 400 federal laws.
The program solicits tips online and over the phone about human trafficking, drug smuggling, terrorism and trade violations. On recent press releases about efforts to crack down on child sex crimes and to prevent female genital mutilation, ICE asks the public to report human rights abuses and other serious offenses to the tip line.
Bourke said that a detailed breakdown of the types of tips the program receives is considered “law enforcement sensitive.” VTDigger has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for that information.
According to descriptions of tips reviewed by VTDigger, recent calls have involved a range of allegations. They come from all over the country, with many from Texas, California, Florida and New York.
•  One woman called to report an immigrant who was in a relationship with a relative. The caller worried that the immigrant was trying to marry him in order to take advantage of him.
•  One caller reported an immigrant who was said to have re-entered the country after he had already been deported. The caller said the subject was a member of an international gang and had threatened the caller.
Some callers alert ICE to individuals who are in the United States without documentation who are using services.
•  A worker at a school called the tip line to report parents of children at the school. She reported them after she learned their undocumented status because she felt it was wrong for them to use public schools.
•  An employee at a medical facility called to report a patient who did not have legal status. The patient had been receiving treatment for more than a year at the facility’s expense, according to the caller.
Tipsters also report businesses that employ workers without legal status.
•  A caller reported a plant that she said employs immigrants who don’t have legal status to work. A significant portion of the business’ employees are undocumented, the caller, a former employee, alleged. She said she made the report because of the way the workers were treated.
•  A worker in a restaurant called to report his employer after he learned some of his coworkers did not have authorization to work in the country. He called in because he was forced to share some earnings with people he said were working illegally.
Other callers file complaints against people with whom they appear to have a personal grievance.
•  A woman who was separated from her husband called to report him. She had known about his status for years. They were in a dispute over property.
•  A tipster called to report his former girlfriend. He told authorities he knew the woman had received a deportation notice, and decided to call in a tip because he said she had taken advantage of him.
VTDigger reviewed accounts of calls to the tip line with Bourke, who said information like this “could come in” to the line.
Bourke said that analysts who take the calls pass on information to investigators if there is sufficient indication of criminal activity. They then decide if an investigation is appropriate.
Investigations are prioritized based on the “seriousness of the allegation,” he said.
One of the offenses about which the tip line solicits information is “criminal fugitive alien,” a status that refers to people who are in the country without documentation, have been convicted of a crime, and received and ignored a final order of removal.
Asked if the agency would investigate tips about people who have committed immigration violations that do not rise to the level of “criminal fugitive alien” status, Bourke said “potentially.” An investigation would depend on the information provided, he said.
When a tip results in an arrest, ICE personnel involved with the case may circulate an email with the subject line “Success Story.”
Civil liberties advocates say hotlines, like the one Homeland Security operates from Vermont, can lead to racial profiling, escalate over-policing and cultivate an environment of fear.
Sethi, the faculty member at Georgetown Law, said there are mechanisms in place for people to report crimes that are clearly taking place, such as 9-1-1.
“A catchall hot line is unnecessary,” Sethi said, adding that such instruments can intensify a sense of insecurity and fear among the public.
Sethi said it is important to view the ICE tip line in the context of the current administration, which has made a push for stronger immigration laws a centerpiece.
“It can’t be divorced from this moment,” Sethi said.
How did Vermont become the headquarters of an ICE program that takes tips from across the nation and the globe?
Bourke said in an email that “like all other federal law-enforcement agencies, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a presence throughout the United States.”
He said Vermont is also host to regional enforcement offices and a program that investigates bulk cash smuggling.
The tip line is located in part of the same building that houses the Law Enforcement Support Center, an around-the-clock intelligence hub that is used by police across the nation for information about suspects’ immigration status, personal details and criminal background.
While the Law Enforcement Support Center (LESC) and the tip line are located in the same building, they are separate operations. The LESC is under the Enforcement and Removal Operations branch of ICE. The tip line is managed under the Homeland Security Investigations arm of ICE.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been involved with the LESC initiative and played a role in getting the program into its current location in Williston. Staff for Leahy said that while he was aware of the tip line’s presence in Vermont, he was not involved in decisions that were made to headquarter the program there.
Lincoln Peek, a spokesperson for Leahy, said that while ICE has not made any formal indication that the purpose of the tip line has shifted, Leahy has sent a letter to the administration asking whether there has been any change. In the letter, the senator raised concerns about “how DHS activities are being bent to President Trump’s cynical and extreme anti-immigration policies, not only in Vermont but across the country.”
“Sen. Leahy has deep concerns if the tip line has been tasked by the Trump administration to further its discriminatory, anti-immigrant agenda at the expense of important law enforcement duties,” Peek said in an email.
A spokesperson for Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the congressman’s staff was not aware that the tip line was in Vermont and refused comment on the program. Communications staff for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., did not respond to two requests for comment about the program.

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