The DHS and Its Legacy of Terrorizing Immigrants

The DHS and Its Legacy of Terrorizing Immigrants

The DHS and Its Legacy of Terrorizing Immigrants

Since its creation after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security has criminalized immigrants living in the United States as well as those newly arriving or seeking safety here.


In the last few weeks, the Biden administration has announced new border policies, proposed new asylum ban rules, considered bringing back family detention, and submitted a budget request to Congress increasing funding to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), agencies with horrific track records of racism and abuse. In its most recent move, the Biden administration signed an agreement with Canada that would turn asylum seekers back at the Northern border. These moves are an outgrowth of Trump-era policies meant to shut down US borders. But more than that, they represent a continuation of cruel and harmful immigration policies, tracing back 20 years to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Through multiple presidential administrations representing both political parties, the DHS has targeted and criminalized Muslim, Black, brown, and immigrant communities under the guise of “homeland security,” at a cost of $1.4 trillion to taxpayers over its lifetime. Today, it is clear we must dismantle this agency that has actively harmed migrant communities at home and abroad. Instead, the Biden administration has just proposed giving ICE and CBP more money to carry out their harmful agendas.

Rhetoric from the White House and Congress after 9/11 stoked people’s fears about international terrorism and perpetuated racist propaganda to justify a global “War on Terror” leading to the birth of DHS. In his Proposal to Create the Department of Homeland Security, President George W. Bush references “invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons,” “new threats,” a “new kind of enemy,” and a “new and dangerous threat,” nodding to racist tropes and stereotypes about Black and brown migrants. Bush perpetuated the idea that terrorism is a “permanent condition” of modern society and the United States in need of constant protection, encouraging the misguided belief that the DHS is necessary for our country’s safety. The government continues to invoke this fear to justify state violence in the form of counterterrorism and military operations, xenophobic immigration enforcement and border security, surveillance, and expansion of the carceral state.

In March 2003, the new DHS consolidated power across nearly two dozen federal agencies thought to play a key role in “securing the homeland,” including the newly formed ICE and CBP, setting the border up as a battlefield in the War on Terror and propagating the racist and xenophobic idea that immigrants are a security threat. It is no surprise, then, that both CBP and ICE are plagued by a culture of racism, violence, lack of accountability, and secrecy that results in system-wide abuses, including family separation, inhumane detention, and even death. ICE and CBP’s records of abuse are so well-documented that even the DHS’s own internal watchdogs have cited numerous abuses.

In the years following 9/11, while US foreign policy has prioritized war and aggression abroad, the DHS has brought this aggression home to the borders and in the interior. Under multiple presidents now the country has increasingly vilified and criminalized immigrants living in the US as well as those newly arriving or seeking safety here. The Biden administration has continued on the same path with attacks on the right to seek asylum and record numbers of deportations and expulsions. ICE detention numbers have nearly doubled (after a brief dip due to Trump’s anti-asylum policies) since Biden took office, while the agency’s surveillance dragnet has quadrupled.

The abuses of these agencies extend beyond immigrant and border communities. ICE and CBP personnel and assets are deployed to surveil and intimidate US citizens and residents protesting for social justice, and DHS programs provide grant money to militarize local police across the country to further target Black, brown, and poor communities.

Instead of giving billions of taxpayer dollars to the DHS to carry out these harms, the federal government should redirect federal tax dollars to health care, education, housing, infrastructure, and programs that benefit us all. The $442 billion spent on ICE and CBP since 2003 (30 percent of the all the money that has gone to the DHS) is more than twice that spent on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, 1.5 times the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, and more than seven times the budget for the Food and Drug Administration. And now the Biden administration is proposing giving ICE and CBP even more money.

The DHS was created under the guise of public safety, but for 20 years it has made the United States a more dangerous place for Black and brown communities. It takes away vital resources that our communities need to survive and thrive, and instead bolsters a system of surveillance and militarization that causes severe physical and psychological harm on a daily basis. We can and must imagine and create a future without the DHS where our communities’ human dignity is protected and respected.

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