Immigrant Crime Hotline Stalls After Barrage of Prank ‘Alien’ Calls

The veteran who spurred the campaign called the VOICE hotline an "unacceptable, un-American program."

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Woman answering phone at call center
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A government hotline devoted to reporting crimes “by an alien who may be subject to removal” was reportedly jammed after being besieged by prank phone calls immediately following its 26 April 2017 launch.

We tried calling the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) line four times the day after it was unveiled. Each time, a recorded message told us that its call center was “unavailable” to take our call at that time, due to “high call volume”. 

President Donald Trump announced the creation of the VOICE line during his joint address to Congress on 28 February 2017, saying that he ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to put it together as a means to “serve American victims.”

The hotline’s website states that it is not intended to report crime, but rather to “ensure victims and their families have access to releasable information about a perpetrator and to offer assistance explaining the immigration removal process.” It did not elaborate on how this would help the victims of crimes.

The hotline has already been criticized by advocacy groups like HIAS, which works with refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. HIAS president and CEO Mark Hetfield called the VOICE initiative “horrific” and compared it Jewish immigrants in New York City in the 1920s being scapegoated as being responsible for “the majority of crimes” in the city. Hetfield said:

It was just anti-Semitism at its worst and xenophobia at its worst and it’s the same type of thing as we’re seeing now — creation of a hotline that just focuses on crimes committed by “removable” non-citizens. It’s such an offensive concept. You want to have a crime victim hotline? That’s terrific. Should people who commit crimes be removed? Yes. But what’s the point of establishing a taxpayer-funded office just to highlight the fact that some crimes are committed by immigrants and only focus on those crimes? It’s pure villification.

An online campaign quickly formed encouraging others to call VOICE and report “crimes” by extraterrestrials. Alexander McCoy, a former Marine Corps sergeant and a founder of the Common Defense political action commitee, said that he devised the campaign, calling it a “catchy way” to combat what he called “bigoted language and racist stereotypes of criminality” on the part of Trump’s administration, particularly since it coincided with “Alien Day,” a celebration of the Alien film series.

McCoy himself said that he called the hotline to “report” a crime, giving the operator false information before claiming he had been abducted by a UFO. “They closed out the conversation saying that they’d make a note of it, and I should wait for the DHS to investigate my report,” he said.

ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox has said that the VOICE line “was not disrupted.” He also called the campaign a “cheap publicity stunt” in a statement:

The VOICE Office provides information to citizens and non-citizens alike regardless of status, race, etc., whose loved ones have been killed or injured by removable aliens. VOICE provides access to the same information you and other reporters are already able to obtain. Yet this group claims it’s somehow racist to give the same to victims of all races and nationalities? That is absurd.

Further, openly obstructing and mocking victims crosses the line of legitimate public discourse. VOICE is a line for victims to obtain information. This group’s stunt is designed to harm victims. That is shameful.

McCoy provided us with a statement in response to Cox’s allegations:

What is truly beyond the pale is this illegitimate administration’s attempts to use government offices to promote bigotry, spread fear, and divide our nation. The American people are speaking out and making our voices heard that we will not tolerate an office of racist propaganda exploiting the grief of victims of crime.

Those victims are entitled to support and justice. VOICE provides neither, it merely collects stories to slander my neighbors, my friends, people who I served honorably alongside in the United States Marine Corps. Calling to report a UFO is absurd, but no more absurd than this unacceptable, un-American program, and we will not stop until it is shut down.

In a phone interview, McCoy reiterated his intention to continue calling the hotline until it ceased operations, saying: “We’re gonna prevent this office from demonizing members of our community.”

We have reached out to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but have not yet received a response.

After this article was published, research emerged which contradicted ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox’s claim that the VOICE line had not been “disrupted” by prank calls. In October 2018, The Verge cited internal emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, which showed that the large number of calls received in the early days of the hotline had indeed overwhelmed the service:

In reports and emails produced in the first days of operation, ICE officials described an “overwhelming” amount of calls. The day after the launch, the office received more than 16,400. Of those, only a little more than 2,100 were placed into a queue, and only 260 answered. Callers in the queue waited as long as 79 minutes to reach an operator. An official noted that, should the rate of calls continue, they would need an additional 400 operators to field the hotline.

…The reports show that, in the first days after launch, the number of callers actually seeking crime information was miniscule. On the second day after launch, after ICE created a new category to tag prank callers, only 0.6 percent of calls that came through were tagged by operators as “requesting victims services.” That category was not only eclipsed by the “other” tag, used for pranks, but by a tag for reporting crime, a category that operators said represented 6.7 percent of calls that day.

Recent Updates
  1. Update [4 March 2019]: Added reference to subsequent reports establishing that a high volume of calls to the VOICE line had indeed disrupted the service in its first days.
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Sources

Sacks, Brianna.    “People Are Trolling Trump’s New Anti-Immigrant Hotline With Reports of Space Aliens and the Government Is Not Amused.”
   Buzzfeed.    26 April 2017.

Schwartz, Rafi.    “We Asked ICE About the Prank Calls to Their Anti-Immigrant Hotline and They Kind of Lost Their Shit.”
   Fusion.    27 April 2017.

Shuham, Matt.    “ICE: Our VOICE Hotline ‘Was Not Disrupted’ By Calls About Real Aliens.”    Talking Points Memo.    27 April 2017.

White House office of the Press Secretary.    “Remarks By President Trump In Joint Address To Congress.”  
 Accessed via www.whitehouse.gov.    28 February 2017.

Den of Geek.
   “Alien Day Live Stream.”   Accessed via denofgeek.com.    26 April 2017.