Department of Homeland Security

Identification: Federal cabinet-level department created to consolidate immigration and domestic security functions

Date: Established on March 1, 2003

Significance: Formed in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, this well-funded cabinet department of the federal government has exemplified a governmental response to improve the coordination and effectiveness of efforts to combat the ongoing war against terrorism. It has greatly increased the number of illegal immigrants apprehended each year in the United States.

On March 1, 2003, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was founded to address concerns with terrorism that were greatly heightened after the 9/11 attacks. Its creation was widely acknowledged to have prompted the largest federal government reorganization since World War II, and its creation had great implications for evolving immigration policy and practice. Two of the largest agencies that had previously been dealing with immigration issues, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Customs Service, were among the approximately one hundred former federal departments absorbed into the new department. Other DHS branches concerned with immigration control had been created after September 11, 2001. A prominent example is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), whose chief mandate was to ensure airport and airline safety.

Key Immigration-Related Activities of the DHS

The DHS subdivision with primary responsibilities for administrative functions and decisions that affect the immigrant population is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The former Immigration and Naturalization Service and U.S. Customs Service were merged to form the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. With more than 17,200 employees and an annual budget near $5 billion—more than 20 percent of the entire DHS budget—it is the largest DHS investigative agency. The ICE mission statement emphasizes its fight against the smuggling of goods and the entry of terrorists and other criminals into the United States. Additional priorities include combating arms and drug trafficking, fraud, pornography and related sex crimes, and whitecollar crime.

ICE cooperates with corresponding agencies in many foreign countries, helped by more than fifty branch offices around the world. It has five main organizational divisions:

  • Office of Detention and Removal Operations 
  • Office of Investigations 
  • Office of Federal Protective Service 
  • Office on Intelligence and the Office of International Affairs 
  • forensic document laboratory 

The forensic document laboratory is an important subdivision established in 1978 but now run by ICE. Its work is focused on discovering identity and travel document fraud. Its staff includes handwriting and fingerprint specialists as well as forensic chemists. Staff members often serve as expert court witnesses, and they maintain an extensive library of relevant documents. Personnel from the laboratory provide consultative and training services to related professionals in the United States and abroad and issue intelligence alerts concerning recently detected fraudulent documents.

The DHS is charged with the responsibility of maintaining the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NEERS), which was established in 2002 by congressional order to monitor the more than 35 million nonimmigrants visiting the United States on a temporary basis for work, study, or tourism. These visitors are required to register with DHS authorities and must provide the DHS with written notification prior to changing their residences, jobs, or schools after they have been in the United States for more than one month. Noncompliance can lead to arrest, fines, and possible deportation. One of the main databases is the Student and Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which tracks foreign students in the United States and provides notification if they do not attend their classes.

The actual activities of ICE have been quite varied. The number of illegal immigrants who have been deported has steadily increased since the agency’s formation—from 166,000 in 2004, for example, to 186,000 in 2006. There has also been a large-scale effort to apprehend fugitive aliens who seek to avoid deportation orders. ICE established “fugitive operations teams” that give priority to apprehending illegal immigrants involved in violent crimes. By 2009, one hundred such teams were operating across the United States. In fiscal year 2008, they made more than 34,000 arrests and reversed a previous trend of yearly increases in the numbers of fugitive aliens. The intelligence hub of this initiative is the Fugitive Operations Support Center (FOSC), which was established in Vermont in 2006. This unit has made use of computerized databases and close contacts with other lawenforcement agencies to increase detection and apprehension rates.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano speaking at a press conference held at the Port of Miami in May, 2009
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano speaking at a press conference held at the Port of Miami in May, 2009. Behind her are representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Immigration and Customs. (AP/Wide World Photos)

ICE runs an extensive immigration detention custody system with 370 facilities either owned by the DHS or, more commonly, operating under service contracts with the DHS. This system has a 32,000-bed capacity, and a detention standards unit monitors compliance with national regulations originally promulgated in 2000 by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. ICE personnel reviewed these standards and modified them to reflect a performance, outcome-based perspective. The goal is to foster consistency across facilities in areas such as the conditions of confinement, access to lawyers, and overall operations safety.

Spurred on by the 9/11 attacks, the DHS instituted a large-scale tracking program—called U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology—to monitor the millions of nonimmigrant foreign nationals who visit or pass through the United States each year. Designed for use at all land ports-of-entry, it runs fingerprints and pictures through databases of criminals and those on security “watch lists.” It also records the dates the visitors enter and leave the country.

Controversies

Much of the early twenty-first century controversy swirling around DHS handling of immigration affairs can be seen as a reflection of what some have noted to be a general orientation of “hyper vigilance” in confronting terrorism. This refers to a governmental policy of pursuing even the smallest indications of possible threats to national security, even though the vast majority of such interventions ultimately turn out to be false positives. The “onepercent doctrine” states that even a probability of another 9/11-type attack as small as 1 percent merits full preventive response measures, often at great public expense. Some have noted that this approach is reflective of a general sense of moral panic, especially following 9/11, and an unbridled desire on the part of the public at large to “feel safe,” in a very deep-rooted psychological sense.

The implications of such a perspective for immigration policy and practice are profound. The tactics of the DHS have been criticized as relying unfairly on the immigration status and countries of origin of immigrants. For example, immigration raids carried out in airports and utility company plants deemed to be of “high risk” for terrorist acts have often focused in a blanket way on workers of specific ethnicities, without regard to their individual likelihoods of actual guilt. In some airports, groups of Hispanic support personnel have been arrested on the grounds that their undocumented immigration status makes them more liable to terrorist recruitment and coercion.

Approval rates for applications from asylum seekers have steadily declined since the inception of the DHS, and the decision making has at times seemed to proceed on a global country-by-country (instead of on an individual applicant) basis. For example, during the early twenty-first century, more than 60 percent of Iraqi and Cuban applications for asylum were approved, while fewer than 10 percent of those fromHaiti and El Salvador were given asylum.

The decreasing approval rates are coupled with a decrease in application rates, and both can be traced to tough, seemingly blanket-type approaches to detention decisions. During various periods between 2003 and 2008, all applicants from thirty-three countries that had an al-Qaeda presence were automatically detained. This practice was carried out in spite of international regulations that mandated detention decision making on an individual, case-by-case basis and a presumption against detention for those with pending asylum applications.

These applications of “guilt by association”-type processing have raised the controversial specter of racial profiling, an alleged police practice that, when exposed, has been roundly reviled by both liberal and conservative critics. This in turn is fueled by an increasing practice of privatization with the fields of corrections and security. The DHS has spent many millions of dollars on lucrative contracts to private agencies involved in augmenting border patrols and running detention centers. Just as the privatization of prisons has raised grave concerns regarding accountability and the protection of human rights, so has its role in DHS operations. This is especially troublesome considering the fact that most of the detainees are being held for alleged immigration violations, not for violent or even for property crimes. Nationally, the number of detainees has quadrupled between 1995 and 2008, when it was estimated that 30,000 immigrants were incarcerated on any given day.

In one Rhode Island detention center formerly under contract to the DHS, for example, it was alleged in a federal lawsuit that a thirty-four-year-old Chinese computer engineer with no prior criminal record was denied medical care for what ultimately turn out to be a fatal liver cancer illness. During the period of his detention, he was taken screaming in pain to Connecticut for a mandatory meeting with ICE officials, and on the return trip guards are said to have thrown him down and dragged him by his arms and legs, breaking his back in the process. The DHS subsequently canceled its contract with this facility and several of its guards were fired or otherwise disciplined, but lengthy confinement persists for many immigrants who have pending proceedings.

In large measure, the persistence of immigrant detention wings of local jails and even entire facilities occupied by immigrants reflects a financial incentive. Even in an extremely difficult economic climate, the DHS budget for detainees in the New England region alone increased by ten million dollars between 2006 and 2008, and the national budget in 2008 was $1.7 billion. It has been estimated that financially strapped local corrections facilities can receive more than ninety dollars per day for each immigrant detainee. This translates into a lucrative source of inmates to fill all available empty beds, while injecting much needed capital into the sagging economies of most of the communities housing jails and prisons. The facilities themselves have been able to use the added revenue to undertake major renovations and expansions that would never have been possible if public funding were their sole income stream. The overall detention issue is exacerbated by open-ended periods of confinement for most detainees. Unlike their indigent criminal counterparts, they are not entitled to public counsel representation at the hearings themselves.

Highlights of Immigration-Related DHS Activities

Despite all inherent operational difficulties and strong political pressures influencing long-range agency policy and goals, the DHS activities in the area of immigration law enforcement have been largely successful. In terms of apprehending fugitives from deportation orders, for example, two four- and five-day operations in February, 2009, resulted in more than two hundred arrests in four southern states. The nationwide number of such arrests doubled between 2006 and 2008. During the same month, ICE attorneys won prison terms for two members of a human smuggling ring operating between Canada and Detroit. This “for profit” enterprise had attempted to send a twentythree- year-old Albanian national and his mother from Canada to the United States across the frozen Detroit River on Jet Skis. However, the Jet Skis overturned and the Albanian man drowned. This type of incident highlights the importance of a vigorously functioning agency that should be afforded a certain degree of autonomy in its operations. In light of the issues raised earlier, however, it is clear that there is a need for considerable oversight in terms of how the DHS runs its immigration-related programs and operations. This supervision, if well planned and executed, can also have positive benefits for the agency internally, in terms of overallemployee satisfaction and morale.

Clearly, there is strong potential for the DHS to build on its past track record of successful enforcement, while directly addressing the internal and external controversies that have accompanied its development and growth.

Eric Yitzchak Metchik

Further Reading

  • Ackleson, Jason. “Constructing Security on the U.S.-Mexico Border.” Political Geography 24 (2005): 165-184. Scholarly, theoretically based analysis of the evolution of U.S. policy regarding border security with Mexico. 
  • Bullock, Jane, and George Haddow. Introduction to Homeland Security. 2d ed. Burlington, Mass.: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006. Introductory text offering a comprehensive overview of the Department of Homeland Security that explains the department’s various agencies and their responsibilities. 
  • Kerwin, Donald. “The Use and Misuse of ‘National Security’ Rationale in Crafting U.S. Refugee and Immigration Policies.” International Journal of Refugee Law 17, no. 4 (2005): 749-763. Insightful due process-oriented analysis of U.S. immigration policies, as affected by changed priorities after the September 11 attacks. 
  • Kettl, Donald F. System Under Stress: Homeland Security and American Politics.Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2004. Excellent introductory reading for those seeking to place post-9/11 changes in immigration policy into the broader context of U.S. counterterrorism policy. 
  • Lehrer, Eli. “The Homeland Security Bureaucracy.” The Public Interest (Summer, 2004): 71-85. Detailed survey of DHS organizational components and capacities. 
  • McEntire, David A. Introduction to Homeland Security: Understanding Terrorism with an Emergency Management Perspective. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Extensive survey of all aspects of Department of Homeland Security tasks. 
  • Smith, MichaelW. “Denial of Asylum: Is There Organizational Justice Under the Department of Homeland Security?” International Journal of the Diversity 6, no. 3 (2006): 61-69. Data-oriented analysis of asylum denial rate elevations during the past decade. 
  • Ting, Jan C. “Immigration and National Security.” Orbis (Winter, 2006): 41-52. Details national policies that have facilitated the increase in illegal immigrants in the United States, as well as the relationship of this phenomenon to the terrorist threat. 
  • Uehling, Greta Lynn. “The International Smuggling of Children: Coyotes, Snakeheads, and the Politics of Compassion.” Anthropological Quarterly 81, no. 4 (2008): 833-871. Case study and interview-based analysis of the problem of unaccompanied, illegal immigrant children in the United States. 
  • White, Richard, and Kevin Collins. The United States Department of Homeland Security: An Overview. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2005. Scholarly but nonetheless accessible examination of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, providing details about the department’s various agencies and the role of the Border Patrol in combating terrorism. 

See also: Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001; Border Patrol, U.S.; Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.; Coast Guard, U.S.; Deportation; Disaster recovery work; Illegal immigration; Immigration law; Muslim immigrants; 9/11 and U.S. immigration policy; Patriot Act of 2001; Smuggling of immigrants.

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