• Madison Lazenby

The DHS Is Just Clutter In The US Police State

As Gen Zers, we grew up during the normalization of “national security” politics, which presents terrorizing undocumented immigrants, arming civilian police forces with military weapons, and infringing on civil liberties as somehow necessary for our safety. The Department of Homeland Security is emblematic of this type of politics, which has been most recently observed with Trump’s DHS separating families at the US-Mexico border and sending paramilitary police forces after Black Lives Matter protesters. However, it would be a mistake to purely associate the abuses of the DHS with the Trump administration, even if it is true that some of the worst abuses happened under it.


Now that a Biden administration is underway, it is time to have conversations about the institutions that have been oppressive even before Trump’s presidency. Although Biden has paid lip service to rolling back Trump’s immigration policies, he has remained intent on keeping ICE (and by extension, the DHS) intact, believing that these institutions are necessary and can be reformed. The pervasiveness of the assumption that the existence of DHS is somehow necessary shows how quickly and successfully this 17 year old bureaucracy has been normalized. It also highlights a failure in our political establishment in assessing what the Department has actually accomplished in its inefficiently broad mission of keeping the United States safe from terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and immigrants (who should not be considered a national security threat in the first place).


Unsurprisingly, this was an attitude I noticed during a discussion with former Obama Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, which was hosted on Zoom last month with Professor Johnson’s class, “The American Administrative State.” Eager for the opportunity to hold him accountable for the DHS’ failures and abuses, I attended the discussion; unfortunately, the webinar format was carefully controlled and I was not selected to ask a question. Thankfully, Natalie Halpin ’21 broached the subject of dismantling the DHS and forced Secretary Johnson to address growing critiques. Johnson, of course, disagreed with the calls to abolish DHS, arguing that the Department’s mission needs to exist someplace. “It’s better for these agencies to exist within one level where security is a focus, that’s better than having them scattered among different places,” he said. “If we don’t like what the agency is doing, then we change the policy. If you don’t like the people who promulgate the policy, vote that administration out.”


This response assumes that all of the issues with DHS stem from bad leadership rather than its institutional structure. This narrative is strengthened by the fact that the media has not held the DHS accountable during past administrations. One of the most infamous practices of the Trump administration’s DHS is the detainment of immigrant children and asylum seekers in crowded detention facilities for indefinite periods. Pictures circulated of crowded cages with detainees using tinfoil as blankets, awakening many to the abuses of the US immigration system. However this method of detainment predates Trump’s DHS, and was actually normalized under Jeh Johnson’s DHS during the Obama Presidency.


While I disagree that every agency overseen by the DHS should exist, Johnson is correct that (most of) these missions should exist somewhere. However, his assertion that the agencies governed by the DHS are better off under its management is asinine. One of the many consistently mismanaged agencies under the DHS is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for disaster response. When the DHS absorbed FEMA, the director, Michael D. Brown, warned that this move would weaken the agency’s ability to combat emergencies. Brown was first proven right after FEMA failed to effectively respond to Hurricane Katrina due to the DHS’ refusal to provide the agency with funding unless they earmarked a portion to fight terrorism. He was proven right again when FEMA failed to effectively address the Flint water crisis. Most recently, Brown’s warning rang true yet again when FEMA botched its response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.


Even the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which was created with the DHS for the sole purpose of counter-terrorism, is extremely inefficient. As recently as 2017, the TSA failed to stop “inspectors from smuggling weapons or explosive materials through screening” 95 percent of the time. Since the TSA is clearly not functioning well under the DHS, there is no reason why it cannot be moved to the US Department of Transportation.


Furthermore, some of the agencies have missions that the DHS has no business managing in the first place. Prior to absorbing federal immigration agencies like Customs and Border Patrol, immigration was managed by the Department of Labor and Department of Justice. It is no wonder that our immigration system treats immigrants and asylum seekers with so little humanity today. What else do we expect when we begin to treat it like a national security issue, the only outcome of having the Department of Homeland Security oversee it?


The original and primary purpose of the DHS has always been to address the failure of the US National Security apparatus that allowed the 9/11 terrorist attacks to happen. However, this redundant institution does nothing to address those failures. In 2011, the CATO Institute published a report that found that the central failure during 9/11 was a lack of coordination between the FBI and CIA, yet none of their responsibilities were consolidated under the DHS at all. Now, instead of 2 organizations conducting counter-terrorism operations, we have 3. This led the CATO Institute (a conservative think tank) to conclude that: “Abolishing DHS and reorganizing its components can save billions annually and alleviate the mounting pressure on civil liberties that we have experienced under ever expanding homeland security bureaucracy.”


The DHS does not make us safer, and it should have never existed in the first place. It is time that we stop seeing it as a vital institution and instead call it what it actually is: a relic from the post-9/11 politics of fear that resulted in some of the worst mistakes in recent US history, such as the Iraq War. I would even go as far as to argue that the existence of the DHS makes us less safe. Its archaic, narrow view of what “national security” means minimizes the validity of serious threats to our safety, such as pandemics and environmental disasters. This is exactly why we have observed the Department starving agencies like FEMA of resources. Instead, the Department prioritizes most of its resources for fueling the police state by surveilling Black Lives Matter activists, granting the transfer of military weapons to civilian police forces, spying on Muslim communities, and monitoring immigrant rights protests using fusion intelligence sharing hubs.


Abolishing the DHS would not solve all of the systemic issues that fuel the US police state, but it would at the very least be one less organization with undue focus on surveillance and policing the marginalized.


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