Days after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, Mattie Walker woke up to police knocking on her door in Texas. The officers, who worked for the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service—the agency tasked with protecting federal buildings and their employees—handed her a letter referencing something she posted on Twitter the day of the decision. “You became upset at the Roe Vs Wade decision and stated, ‘Burn every fucking government building right down right the fuck now. Slaughter them all. Fuck you goddamn pigs,’” the letter stated. Then it warned her against “any harassing/threatening language when contacting any government agency,” threatening her with arrest if she didn’t comply.
After handing her the letter, Walker told Jezebel, the officers asked her if she still planned on burning any government buildings down. “I said, ‘No sir, that wasn’t my plan.’ I was like, ‘I honestly haven’t even been able to make it to any protests yet.’”
DHS spent the months leading up to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision preparing for abortion-related violence from the right and the left, an internal memo leaked to Axios revealed. But, the memo noted, “the mere advocacy of political or social positions, political activism, use of strong rhetoric, or generalized philosophic embrace of violent tactics does not constitute domestic violent extremism or illegal activity and is constitutionally protected.” Still, a tweet was reason enough for the Protective Service to show up at Walker’s door. The agency hasn’t backed down. In a statement to The Dallas Morning News, the DHS agent who wrote the original letter suggested Walker wasn’t taking the situation seriously. “She’s kind of taking it as a joke,” the agent told the paper. “She’s not remorseful about these statements, so that’ll be presented to a United States Attorney and they’ll make a decision on that.”
Most Americans don’t think about the Department of Homeland Security. If they interact with any DHS agency on a semi-regular basis, it’s probably the TSA. If they think about ICE or Customs and Border Protection, it’s probably not in relation to themselves but rather in the abstract, as shadowy immigration police. But DHS and its component agencies are highly capable of keeping tabs on us—and they often do.
The Department of Homeland Security was established in 2002 in response to the September 11 attacks and was operational a year later. Its creation put immigration enforcement agencies like ICE and CBP under the same federal department as those focused on national security and counterterrorism, creating an explicit link between immigrants and suspected terrorists. The Patriot Act, signed into law the month after 9/11, escalated surveillance against Muslims and Arab-Americans and allowed for the indefinite detention of noncitizens. The act was supposed to be a temporary measure; instead, its provisions were extended until 2020, when the law finally expired.
Immigration enforcement—which until that point had been handled by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency within the Department of Justice—was similarly framed as imperative to national security. Every unauthorized border crosser was suddenly a threat to the homeland; the agents who patrolled the border were given access to the same military tools and technologies used in overseas war zones. By 2007, three years into the war in Iraq, CBP had Predator drones monitoring the US-Mexico border. “It’s the most sophisticated technology we have, and it’s down here on the border to help the Border Patrol agents do their job,” President George W. Bush told a group of assembled agents in Yuma, Ariz.
Certain communities have been dealing with DHS surveillance for the better part of two decades. If you live within 100 miles of the US-Mexico border, you’ve probably had to drive through a Border Patrol checkpoint—unless your immigration status keeps you trapped between the border and the checkpoint, as is the case for unauthorized immigrants who live in the borderlands. CBP scans the biometric information of everyone who crosses ports of entry on foot, and can detain anyone of its choosing for nearly any reason. “The normal Fourth Amendment rights for search and seizure do not apply here,” one CBP agent told me in November while I reported a piece on border surveillance technology for The Verge. A year prior, agents had detained and strip-searched my friend, photographer Ash Ponders, at a port of entry in Nogales, Arizona. Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux, who covers DHS, was also detained.
Government databases help ICE determine who to arrest: thanks to a program called Secure Communities, every single person booked into a local jail has their biometric information put in a database accessible by ICE and other federal law enforcement agencies. ICE uses this information to be alerted to the presence of undocumented immigrants. But after targets are identified, they need to be found and apprehended. Contrary to popular belief, ICE doesn’t go up to random people on the street to ask for their immigration papers. Agents choose specific targets, monitor them—often with the help of social media—and track them to locations where they can easily be arrested, such as their homes, workplaces, or courthouses. (The Biden administration barred ICE agents from arresting immigrants with certain violations at courthouses in 2021.) DHS also relies on external tools to surveil immigrants and US citizens alike. Under Trump, the DHS bought access to a commercial database of user-generated cellphone data, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2020. Both ICE and CBP used the data to track and arrest people suspected of violating immigration laws.
These surveillance tactics are increasingly being used against US citizens, including activists whose work is entirely unrelated to immigration. ICE arrested at least 20 undocumented activists during Trump’s first three years in office. In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, the DHS spied on dozens of activists, lawyers, and journalists. “We were perceived to be radicals,” Kaji Douša, the cochair of the New York City–based New Sanctuary Coalition, told The Intercept. DHS deployed helicopters, planes, and drones—including one of the Predator drones used to monitor the border—to surveil racial justice protests in more than 15 cities in 2020. After 9/11, DHS established “fusion centers” across the country, allowing local and federal law enforcement to collaborate on intelligence gathering and surveillance. In 2020, one such fusion center in Austin, Texas used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit to monitor events organized by Black Lives Matter supporters, The Intercept reported. DHS also spies on entire communities, using their proximity to the border as justification for surveillance. Over the past eight years, DHS has installed surveillance towers on the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona. The final tower was erected this year, allowing the government to keep tabs on sovereign tribal lands.
Homeland Security surveillance isn’t limited to people of color and leftist activists—even though enforcement typically is. Under Trump, some DHS officials tried to get the White House to pay attention to—and crack down on—far-right extremists, but their efforts were unsuccessful and they gave up. One state law enforcement official who works with DHS told Politico that the intelligence materials the department sends to local law enforcement disproportionately emphasizes the threat posed by leftist extremists. “I would expect at least a balanced production between far left and far right extremists,” the official said.
A report from the DHS inspector general found that DHS officials within the Office of Intelligence and Analysis knew about “threat information related to January 6” weeks before the Capitol riots took place. “I mean people are talking about storming Congress, bringing guns, willing to die for the cause, hanging politicians with ropes,” one official wrote to another on January 2. Neither filed a report, because both officials “concluded that the statements were hyperbole, and not true threats or incitement,” the Inspector General report found. It’s worth remembering that the DHS memo warning of extremist violence in the aftermath of Dobbs acknowledged that most abortion-related terrorism is perpetrated the anti-abortion right, not the pro-abortion left—but in the end, the DHS decided to target a frustrated woman for her pro-choice tweets. A month earlier, DHS officers in riot gear were deployed to a pro-Roe protest in Los Angeles.
The cost of this surveillance is staggering. Congress allocated $37.7 billion to the DHS in its inaugural year; in fiscal 2022, the DHS had a $52.2 billion budget. Given the department’s broad mandate, that money is used to fund everything from FEMA to Border Patrol checkpoints to DHS fusion centers. Year after year, Democrats and Republicans alike vote to increase DHS funding, even though some have criticized the department for its treatment of migrants, the conditions in its detention centers, and most recently, for allegedly obstructing the congressional investigation of the January 6 riots. It’s unclear what transgression, if any, will convince Congress to roll back DHS’s funding—and its surveillance capabilities.