The phone rings at 1:32 a.m. At that hour, the news can’t be good. The agent on the line received a referral from a local law enforcement partner who encountered an abused and exploited individual, potentially someone who has been trafficked for sex or labor. Luckily, a victim assistance specialist from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Victim Assistance Program is there to offer assistance.
“We are the non-gun, non-badge carrying personnel who are dedicated to victims’ rights and services,” said Marie Martinez, section chief for the Victim Assistance Program.
The program’s 18 victim assistance specialists are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They have experience in social work, child welfare, human rights, and counseling; and their primary goals are to ensure that crime victims’ rights are protected, that they receive immigration relief when necessary, and that they have access to services. ICE victim assistance coordinators assist victims encountered in any ICE investigation, from human trafficking and child exploitation to human rights abuse and white collar crime. But, Martinez notes, “The lion’s share of our time is spent assisting victims of human trafficking and child exploitation.”
Crime victims - especially those of human trafficking who may be in the United States illegally - often don’t realize they have rights. These individuals are scared and alone - marginalized from society. More often than not, they have experienced traumatic situations that may have long-lasting psychological effects.
Prior to the creation of the Victim Assistance Program and the hiring of full-time subject matter experts in victim assistance, special agents were responsible for all aspects of human trafficking cases, including victim care and coordination. Accessing timely and comprehensive services for victims often proved difficult due to the time-intensive demands of the investigation and the challenges in navigating social services systems and obtaining immigration relief.
“A stable victim is a much better witness,” said special agent Ed Kelly. “[The program] creates an atmosphere where it’s not such a jar when law enforcement comes back into the victim’s life to rehash the whole incident.”
By doing so, the program creates better outcomes not only for the affected individuals, but for the criminal justice system as a whole.
If there’s one thing that a victim of a crime should understand, it is that, “first and foremost, we are concerned about their safety and needs. We view them as partners in the criminal justice process, and they are much better equipped to participate actively and fully when they’ve been treated with respect and care,” said Martinez.