department of homeland security

Elvert Barnes/Flickr (CC-BY)

The case for abolishing the Department of Homeland Security

ICE is terrible, but DHS is its wasteful, inhumane counterpart.


Brenden Gallagher



The call to abolish ICE has grown louder as the Trump administration’s immigration policies have become increasingly inhumane by the day. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency should certainly go, and while we’re at it, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which ultimately controls ICE, should be shown the door, too.

In recent days, ICE, border patrol, and, by extension, DHS have made news due to the spike in separations of children from their parents at the U.S. border, who are then placed in camps outfitted with cages. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has been busy alternately justifying and attempting to explain away the policy. Over the weekend, she tweeted, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”

Then at a press conference on Monday, Nielsen blamed Congress and previous administrations for the separations, before offering a half-hearted defense of the policy: “As long as illegal entry remains a criminal offense, DHS will not look the other way.”

This type of inhumane directive is nothing new for DHS. The Department of Homeland Security has yielded a long record of failure, waste, and oppression. Established on Nov. 25, 2002, DHS was created in reaction to 9/11. But there were many terrible knee-jerk reactions to 9/11 that we can now recognize as such: The Iraq and Afghan wars that cost countless lives with nothing to show for them. The massive surveillance state our country has become. The fight we picked with France by renaming french fries “freedom fries.” It was a bad and stupid time.

While many of our country’s sins cannot be rectified, we can eliminate the Department of Homeland Security. Here’s specifically why we need to.


The mission has changed

The purpose of DHS was initially to prevent attacks like 9/11. This directive simply isn’t as clear today. At the time, Al-Qaeda was the leading terror threat in the world, and it was an organization led by Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda is a remnant of its former self today, and bin Laden is long dead.

Our next terroristic evil, the Islamic State (ISIS), has also largely been defeated in Iraq and Syria. Even with the threats of Islamic terror that exist today, it’s hard to see what DHS is capable of that the sprawling infrastructure of the FBI and CIA aren’t already equipped to handle. A 2012 report found that 25 percent of DHS counterterrorism work was already being done, and done better, by the FBI.


The department is bloated and directionless

It isn’t just that the DHS steps on the toes of the FBI and CIA without doing anything to fix the shortcomings of those agencies; the creation of DHS combined or overlapped with 22 federal departments, saddling the new organization with responsibilities as vast and varied as border security, emergency management, and cybersecurity. As the New Republic’s Matt Ford explains:

“DHS incorporated FEMA and the Coast Guard. The department also absorbed the entire Immigration and Naturalization Service, merging Border Patrol and the Customs Service to create Customs and Border Protection and moving INS domestic enforcement functions into ICE. The Secret Service was brought under DHS, too. All told, the department combined 22 agencies from across the government.”

The result is that DHS is now a sprawling behemoth with no clear mandate. The redundancy and bureaucracy of DHS has even drawn the ire of some on the right. Matt Meyer argued in Reason that “problems are exacerbated due to the fact that, in many cases, the activities DHS engages in require enormous coordination with entities embedded in other federal departments.”

It would be one thing if all the departments that fall under DHS purview were wholly moved to Homeland Security, but that isn’t the case either. For example, “the agency that supplies prosecutors in immigration court cases was moved to DHS,” but “that agency that supplies immigration court judges, on the other hand, stayed in the Department of Justice.” Strange contradictions like this persist throughout the agency.

One of the most damning examples of DHS waste is so-called “fusion centers.” These regional hubs are supposed to support information sharing and facilitate cooperation. But a 2012 Senate Homeland Security Committee report found that fusion centers “often produced irrelevant, useless, or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever.” In short, fusion centers expand the vast surveillance network in America but provide no tangible benefits from that effort.

Perhaps because waste is so egregious, the government keeps the details of DHS’s budget classified, even though the department receives $50 billion a year in government funding. While much of the budget technically belongs to other agencies and wouldn’t necessarily shrink from the budget were DHS abolished, the billions of dollars the agency spends connecting and administering these various departments could be saved.


DHS is an instrument of oppression

Some of DHS’s biggest failures also comprise some of worst ways minority communities have been treated in recent memory. FEMA’s historic mismanagement of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 occurred after FEMA had been merged under DHS. More recently, FEMA has been criticized for its dreadful handling of recent Puerto Rican recovery efforts, which led to a death toll we are still calculating. That both these overlooked disasters impacted communities of color is no strange coincidence, either.

Also under the umbrella of DHS: ICE. Prior to the Trump administration, ICE was already detaining at least a 100,000 people a year, which, as the New Yorker pointed out, is “more arrests per year than the F.B.I., the U.S. Marshals, and the Secret Service make combined.” Under Trump, this figure has already surged by 40 percent.

The recent evils committed by ICE are too numerous to provide a full accounting of (you can start here if you like). But with the agency’s abuse of data, separation of families, and massive arrest campaign, there is enough evil being done at ICE alone to justify the end of DHS.

DHS has also had a role to play in the militarization of police. Before the creation of DHS, there were already two ways for local law enforcement to get their hands on military-grade equipment: grants from the Department of Defense or the Justice Department. The DHS added a third. This means if a local police department is found to be misusing DOJ funds and gets cut off, it can sometimes turn around and apply for a grand from DHS.

Surveillance is another huge vacuum for DHS resources. While getting rid of DHS would still leave the NSA, CIA, and FBI with surveillance capabilities, it would at least end one of the numerous agencies permitted to spy on American citizens. Almost every mandate of the DHS has a surveillance component, and the ACLU has accused various sectors of the department of civil rights violations, from laptop searches to behavioral profiling.

Between its investment in surveillance and its providing military-grade equipment to law enforcement, a significant percentage of the issues central to the Movement for Black Lives can be traced by to DHS. Al Jazeera confirmed in 2017 that DHS has been monitoring BLM activists, and the ACLU asserts that DHS has monitored a number of peaceful protestors.


Tear it down

Let’s be real: DHS never functioned well. In the first five years of its existence, the organization oversaw $15 billion in canceled contracts. The monumental waste and civil rights violations by DHS has continued ever since. While the organization may not have been effective at its original mission, it has been effective at normalizing racial profiling and demoralizing human beings.

Many of the U.S.’s terrible sins in response to 9/11 can never be washed away. But eliminating DHS would be a symbolic gesture in which the government could admit it was catastrophically wrong in creating an agency that used one of America’s greatest tragedies to justify the oppression of the country’s most vulnerable communities.

Share this article

*First Published:

The Daily Dot