When tipsters call ICE, the phone rings in Vermont

Photo by John Young/VTDigger
The building housing Immigration and Customs Enforcement is near Taft Corners in Williston.

By Elizabeth Hewitt

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 the Bed, Bath & Beyond store near Taft Corners in Williston.

The Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line was started in 2003 to crack down on child predators. 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 the program hasn’t changed under the Trump administration, staffing was bolstered with contract employees last year and the number of tips has increased 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 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 prompted widespread outrage.

Last month, Trump stopped the practice under pressure from advocacy groups, law enforcement officials and members of Congress from both parties. Last week, 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.

In early 2017, 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 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 30 percent.

Data from ICE shows the number of calls increased 27 percent from fiscal years to and 2017: The program logged 129,890 calls in fiscal 2016; last fiscal year the total rose to 165,285. Calls for the current fiscal year, which ends in September, already number over 100,000.

Late last year, ICE bolstered the tip line’s staff of 34 full-time federal employees – all in Williston – with 20 customer service representatives hired by a Maryland-based contractor to work in Vermont. Federal records show ICE awarded Integral Consulting Services a six-month contract last September for call center support services in Williston for $592,351.

Tips provided to ICE
Today, the tip line takes complaints from the public on more than 400 federal laws — human trafficking, drug smuggling, terrorism, trade violations, child sex crimes, female genital mutilation, and human rights abuses.

The agency says a detailed breakdown of the types of tips is “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 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 to take advantage of him.

• One caller reported an immigrant had re-entered the country after he had already been deported. The caller said the man was a member of an international gang and had threatened the caller.

Some callers alert ICE to people who are in the United States without documentation and are using services.

• A worker at a school called the tip line to report undocumented parents of children at the school. She felt it was wrong for them to use public schools.

• An employee at a medical facility reported a patient who did not have legal status and had been receiving treatment for more than a year at the facility’s expense.

• A restaurant worker reported some of his coworkers did not have authorization to work in the U.S.

• A woman separated from her husband called to report him. She had known about his status for years.
Analysts who take the calls pass on information to investigators if there is evidence of criminal activity. They then decide if an investigation is appropriate.

Civil liberties advocates say hotlines, like the one in Vermont, can lead to racial profiling, escalate over-policing, and cultivate an environment of fear.

Headquartering in Vermont
How did Vermont become the headquarters of an ICE program that takes tips from across the nation and the globe?

The tip line is located in part of the same building that houses the Law Enforcement Support Center, an around-the-clock intelligence hub used by police across the nation for information about suspects’ immigration status, personal details and criminal background. The two operations are separate.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., helped get the Law Enforcement Support Center located 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 Leahy spokesman, said the senator sent a letter to the Trump administration, asking whether the mission has changed. Leahy’s letter raised concerns about how Department of Homeland Security activities “are being bent to President Trump’s cynical and extreme anti-immigration policies, not only in Vermont but across the country.”

An aide to U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the congressman’s staff was not aware that the tip line was in Vermont. Communications staff for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., did not respond to two requests for comment.

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