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The United States isn’t any more secure than it was 14 years ago—if anything, things are even worse.
Congressional Republicans are once again holding the government hostage against a budget authorization bill, this time threatening to put the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) into furlough. Maybe it’s time to call them on their bluff and go one step further: Let’s shut down the DHS. The agency is no longer relevant in an age where cyberterrorism may be the new normal, and it’s doing the United States more harm than good.
As Ashley Parker at the New York Times reports, obstructionist Republicans are so determined to get their way on immigration policy that they’re willing to let the agency’s funding lapse rather than authorize a bill that includes immigration provisions. “Some House Republicans,” she wrote, “have expressed a willingness to let the agency run out of money.”
And maybe we should. Permanently.
1) It was a terrible kneejerk reaction to Sept. 11
In the chaotic days after the horrific terrorist attacks of 2001, President George W. Bush and Congress were both desperate and swift to act. Under heavy demands from the U.S. public, they wanted to demonstrate that they were doing something to protect the security of the nation. The DHS, along with the PATRIOT Act, were the result. Both had a chilling effect on the U.S. public, becoming the building blocks of our 21st century security culture.
Thanks to the DHS, Americans have faced a substantial abridgement of their civil liberties and have come to view law enforcement activity that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago as routine. In the name of security, the DHS has created greater latitude for search and seizure, increased the number of people in prison—particularly people of color, with the number of black men in prison now exceeding the number of slaves kept in the United States in 1850—and attracted substantial criticism.
2) $39.3 billion is a huge waste of federal funds
DHS funding last year amounted to $39.3 billion. Split between divisions like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), agricultural inspection, and the Coast Guard, the funding sucked into the DHS wasn’t used efficiently. As is common with large government agencies, significant problems with both funding use and accountability have been a recurrent issue at the DHS, where large amounts of money are disbursed without notable returns.
In 2007, the Department of Homeland Security was unable to pass even basic auditing because its accounting system was such a mess. In its first five years, the agency oversaw $15 billion in failed contracts, including an assortment of poorly conceived and controlled ideas, ranging from overhauling ships for the Coast Guard to developing better airport screening. Writing about the DHS funding crisis, Anne Applebaum at Slate says:
Since their hurried and heavily politicized creation, the fact is that neither the priorities nor the spending patterns of the Department of Homeland Security and its junior partner, the Transportation Security Administration, has ever been subject to serious scrutiny. They have never been forced to make hard choices. On the contrary, both have been encouraged, by their congressional funders, to spend money on more elaborate equipment every year in reaction to every perceived new threat, real or otherwise.
3) Its disaster preparedness and response are abysmal
Hurricane Katrina showed us in 2005 that the United States is not prepared to deal with severe disasters, and that was underscored with Superstorm Sandy. We have the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and parent agency DHS to thank for that. One of the agency’s key missions is to improve disaster preparation and response, yet it has been categorically unable to do so.
Issues like these are going to repeat themselves and may, in fact, become more severe with climate change. As yet another polar vortex holds the East Coast and some parts of the South in lockdown, the United States needs to seriously invest in developing a coherent and comprehensive disaster prevention and response system. It’s time to address deferred maintenance on levees, subways, and related systems and to create an effective rapid response plan for natural disasters. FEMA hasn’t done it, and clearly the DHS is not up to the job.
4) Our law enforcement agencies are too militarized
Growing militarization of law enforcement agencies is a significant problem in a country where police departments should be concerned with protecting public safety, not in making war on the public. As seen in Ferguson, Mo., and across the country last year, police departments are now heavily armed with military-grade equipment provided and partially funded by the DHS. Law enforcement culture is changing in the U.S., and not for the better.
Meanwhile, law enforcement under direct DHS supervision, like the Border Patrol and ICE, is also becoming highly militarized. While these agencies are ostensibly in place to help the United States monitor the movement of people across borders to protect the welfare of the nation and prevent illegal immigration, their function also appears to be in a state of rapid revolution. Both are investing heavily in arrests, the use of detention facilities with deplorable conditions, and aggressive policing on the border—a departure from law enforcement and into military-style treatment of civilians.
5) It’s time to end the war on immigrants
The DHS is an active participant in the war on immigrants in the United States—the very same issue that the president and the House are trying to tackle. Undocumented immigrants of all stripes are being treated like base criminals, from housekeepers trying to send money home to their families to hardened criminals with extensive records. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports 315,943 “removals” for 2014, including those of people without criminal records.
Meanwhile, close to 450,000 immigrants are held annually across the United States, with many living in substandard, terrible conditions in crowded facilities while waiting for their day in immigration court. It can take months or even years to get to court, and because undocumented immigrants are not citizens, they are not entitled to the legal rights that would make such gross delays in justice a civil rights violation under the law. ICE and related agencies have created a logistical nightmare for the government and a terrifying reality for immigrants, not to mention a wildly expensive immigration tangle; the U.S. spent a reported two billion dollars on immigration detention in 2014.
6) Surveillance culture in the U.S. gets bigger every year
Prior to 2001, Americans placed a high value on civil rights, including freedom from excessive surveillance. Now, Americans are living in a world of warrantless wiretapping, extensive CCTV usage, drones overhead, and the curtailment of privacy in a variety of settings. The DHS is only partially responsible for these moves—the PATRIOT Act certainly played a role, as did other government agencies and acts of Congress—but it has been a large player in the creation and enforcement of policies that abridge the right to privacy.
Charles Kenney at Bloomberg commented about the consequences of surveillance culture: “Beyond the waste of money and the overregulation, the expansion of the homeland security state has created unnecessary fear among a population that should be able to trust its government to send accurate signals about risk.”
Putting an end to the DHS would create a radical shift in the world of surveillance, raising questions about how and when Americans should be subjected to government monitoring. It could become the first step in dismantling a legal system in which civilians have become the enemy, instead of the terrorists from whom we are ostensibly protecting ourselves.
7) We need to focus on internal problems
The Department’s heavy focus on external threats has come at a high internal cost. Acts of domestic terrorism, like the assassination of Dr. Tiller in 2009, mass shootings in numerous venues, the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, and attacks on religious minorities illustrate that the DHS has failed spectacularly on the issue of protecting Americans from terrorist threats. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, indicates that hate groups in the United States are on the rise and pose a significant risk of terrorism, yet the DHS has taken little to no moves to address them, an ominous and troubling sign.
In a particularly stark example of the failings at the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service is in a state of crisis. Multiple assassination attempts against President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have shown that the Secret Service, now under DHS purview, is unable to provide adequate protection at the White House, another extremely troubling development. When a government agency supposedly dedicated to extinguishing the threat of terrorism in the United States can barely protect one of the nation’s most valued assets, it’s hard not to wonder where else the agency is failing.
The DHS never should have been established in the first place, as hasty, immediate reactions to crises tend to leave large messes that need to be cleaned up later. The United States is facing that cleanup, and this funding crisis provides a perfect reason to simply close the agency, split its various departments into relevant agencies that can better manage their own affairs, and focus on real and immediate threats to American health, safety, and well-being.
Screengrab via Showtime/YouTube
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.