Have You Ever?

It’s likely that in your lifetime, you’ve had to wait in the security line at the airport and remove your shoes before sending your haphazardly-packed bucket of carry-on items through the scanner. You may have waited in your car for hours to cross the Canadian or Mexican border, spent time in the customs line on your way to spring break, applied for permanent residency, or helped your parents study for their citizenship test. You’ve probably wondered, what’s the reason for all of this?

Here’s Why

The Department of Homeland Security is a non-military governmental department that, through its various divisions, has implemented many rules and regulations with the intention of keeping the U.S. safe from threats like terrorism and cyber attacks. Many of these prevention efforts are those you encounter in your daily lives, such as the ones previously mentioned, but a vast majority are carried out behind-the-scenes. 

Definition: Department of Homeland Security

According to the 2002 Homeland Security Act, the mission of the Department of Homeland Security is to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, to reduce our country’s vulnerability to terrorism, to minimize the damage and aid in recovery from any attacks that occur, to manage crises and engage in emergency planning, and to monitor illegal drug trafficking and attempt to stop it.

How It Works

In November of 2002, in response to the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security. It became the fifteenth department under the Executive Branch. The Department is led by a President-appointed and Senate-confirmed Secretary. 

The Department of Homeland Security adopted existing agencies and created new ones as well. The responsibilities of Homeland Security now include border security, citizenship & immigration, civil rights, cybersecurity, disaster management, election security, human trafficking, transportation security, and state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement.

Border patrol primarily focuses on the day-to-day movement of people and contraband – such as illicit drugs and counterfeit money – across the border. Immigration policy determines who is allowed to enter the country for permanent residency, employment, marriage, or asylum. Law enforcement agencies under Homeland Security, such as the Coast Guard, border patrol agents, and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), oversee interactions at the borders and enforce existing regulations. They also secure densely-populated areas and events that are at a high risk for being the target of an attack.

The Department of Homeland Security also handles threats to air travel through the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, and the Federal Air Marshal Service. TSA monitors who is traveling and with what. The Federal Air Marshal Service serves to detect threats while the aircraft is en route. 

A majority of Homeland Security’s time, money, and employees are dedicated to combatting and preventing foreign terrorism. However, resources are slowly being allocated towards addressing acts of domestic terrorism. Cyberthreats such as online hate speech and the mobilization of white supremacist groups, as well as election interference and tampering, also fall under Homeland Security.

While mainly focused on prevention efforts, some disasters cannot be prevented. Disaster relief programs like FEMA respond after natural and human-made disasters, such as hurricanes and nuclear plant explosions. Making these programs and services available to persons with disabilities is also another responsibility of Homeland Security.

Why Care?

Certain subsidiaries under Homeland Security, such as ICE, FEMA, TSA, and law enforcement, often face backlash for allegations of human rights violations, outright racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination, abuse of power, and failing to perform their duties to meet the needs of citizens. ICE has specifically been criticized for detaining suspected illegal immigrants in inhumane conditions that lack adequate food and water, and violate basic health and sanitation standards. Civic rights activists denounce TSA’s use of racial, ethnic, and religious profiling to “randomly” check minorities at a disproportionately high rate. In response, Homeland Security launched an ongoing investigation of these allegations in August 2019. Border security agencies, immigration policies, and election security are contentious for similar reasons.

It’s important to recognize how influential the Department of Homeland Security is in our daily lives. Learning more about the powers and agenda of Homeland Security, as well as its limitations, is essential for understanding how the agency can be used to address many salient social justice issues. The official chosen to run the Department holds a lot of power. Your senators and representatives are responsible for holding government agencies accountable, and as their constituent, you reserve the right to contact them if something feels unjust.

    Learn More

    1. Department of Homeland Security (2019, August 16). Topics. https://www.dhs.gov/topics. 
    2. GovTrack.us. (2020). H.R. 5005 — 107th Congress: Homeland Security Act of 2002. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/107/hr5005.
    3. Kanno-Youngs, Z. (2019, October 2). New Focus at Homeland Security on Domestic Terrorism. New York Times, p. A15(L).

    Think Further

    1. Are there any safety issues within our nation that you feel could be addressed by the Department of Homeland Security? 
    2. What are some of the effects of Homeland Security you see in your own life?
    3. Have you heard of any critiques of any agencies run by the Department of Homeland Security? Do you agree with the critiques?

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