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Prank Calls Brought ICE Hotline to a Standstill

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When ICE launched an immigration crime hotline last year, the Trump administration pitched it as a way to provide resources to victims, but activists saw something else: an attack on the immigrant community.

The hotline was part of the Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) Office, an outfit established in February 2017. When the office first launched a line for its services the following April, protesters flooded the hotline to call in pranks and slow down response times.

The plan picked up even more steam as the protesters shared the hotline number online, encouraging others to call in with fake tips. “Wouldn’t it be a shame if millions of people called this hotline to report their encounters with aliens of the UFO-variety,” one activist wrote, as others suggested phoning in with information on Superman or ET.

The campaign received some media coverage at the time, but ICE largely shrugged off the incident: the agency told the media that while the lines may have been “tied up,” there was ultimately “no disruption.”

But that description sharply understated the effectiveness of the protest, internal emails and documents obtained by The Verge under the Freedom of Information Act show. Prank calls fully upended the system, leaving operators unable to answer more than 98 percent of incoming calls during the protest as the media relations team attempted to contain the narrative.

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.

By the next day, the number of incoming calls dropped to more than 9,400, but the office was still only able to answer about 3 percent. While the influx of calls likely tapered off, the documents don’t describe when.

The agency had good reason to play down the effect of the prank calls publicly. In an email, an unnamed official described how any media coverage on the effect of the calls could exacerbate the problem. “The pranking issue has garnered some media attention, and the thought early on was not to give it any public pushback so as to avoid growing the issue even further,” the person wrote in a partially redacted email.

The emails also show how ICE responded internally to the calls, discouraging reporters from covering the issue while discussing the possibility of providing crime victims as Fox News interview subjects to “balance” coverage.

ICE declined to explain why it characterized the hotline incident as it did, but issued a statement on the protest generally.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) established the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office to acknowledge and serve the needs of victims of crime with a nexus to immigration, and their families,” an ICE spokesperson said.

“Unfortunately, when the VOICE hotline was established, we received many false or ‘prank’ calls, as well as calls from individuals who wanted to vent their frustrations about political issues and immigration policy. It is unfortunate that people chose this way to protest something they disagreed with, as this line was set up specifically to help crime victims seeking information and resources, many of whom have been impacted by serious crimes and are in great need of help and services.”

But the idea that the hotline was used primarily as a resource for victims is untrue. A substantial number of callers attempted to report on alleged crimes by immigrants, according to reporting by Splinter, as well as a quarterly report from the VOICE office.

The office includes a disclaimer on its website that says its phone number is “not a hotline to report crime.” Still, the new documents suggest that, from the earliest days, ICE was aware the line would include information about alleged crime from immigrants, and included an option for phone operators to tag calls in that category.

The reports show that, in the first days after launch, the number of callers actually seeking crime information was minuscule. 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.

“I reported I was being victimized by an immigrant living in NYC on my tax dollars,” one Twitter user wrote, calling in with a prank about Melania Trump as the thousands of other calls rolled in. “I feel like they’d heard it already.”

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