Why Was the Homeland Security Department Created?
President George W. Bush signs the Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2004 and introduces Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge at the Department of Homeland Security, October 1, 2003. The $30 billion spending bill was the first-ever for the new department. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
By Stuart Anderson
Was the Department of Homeland Security created to stop asylum seekers from poor countries? It is a reasonable question, given recent events.
For more than a year, Central American families crossing the U.S. border in search of asylum or work have dominated the time and attention of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its leadership. The recent series of firings and resignations at DHS, including the departure of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, is a direct result of the president and other administration officials trying to stop Central American asylum seekers from coming to the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security was created following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that killed a “total of 2,977 people . . . in New York City, Washington, D.C. and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.” The lack of coordination and intelligence sharing among government agencies was a central concern that led to the cabinet department’s creation.
The Homeland Security Act of 2002 became law on November 25, 2002. Below is section 101 of the law that established the Department of Homeland Security and its mission:
“SEC. 101. EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENT; MISSION.
(a) ESTABLISHMENT.—There is established a Department of Homeland Security, as an executive department of the United States within the meaning of title 5, United States Code.
(1) IN GENERAL.—The primary mission of the Department is to—
(A) prevent terrorist attacks within the United States;
(B) reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism;
(C) minimize the damage, and assist in the recovery, from terrorist attacks that do occur within the United States;
(D) carry out all functions of entities transferred to the Department, including by acting as a focal point regarding natural and manmade crises and emergency planning;
(E) ensure that the functions of the agencies and subdivisions within the Department that are not related directly to securing the homeland are not diminished or neglected except by a specific explicit Act of Congress;
(F) ensure that the overall economic security of the United States is not diminished by efforts, activities, and programs aimed at securing the homeland; and
(G) monitor connections between illegal drug trafficking and terrorism, coordinate efforts to sever such connections, and otherwise contribute to efforts to interdict illegal drug trafficking.”
As the text of the law makes clear, the Department of Homeland Security’s primary mission was “to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States [and] to reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism.”
Today, that does not appear to be the focus of the Department of Homeland Security. “The focus of DHS senior leadership has clearly shifted in the direction of immigration enforcement,” writes CNN’s Zachary Wolf. “The first item listed as a priority in the department’s $47.5 billion budget request for 2020 is ‘securing our borders.’ The second priority listed is ‘Enforcing our immigration laws.’”
This focus will not change soon. Donald Trump’s choice for acting secretary of Homeland Security to replace Kirstjen Nielsen is U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan.
Of course, DHS officials need to address the situation at the border. However, the problem, we should remember, is not the existence of people from Honduras and Guatemala as human beings. The United States accepted more than 500,000 refugees from Vietnam after the Vietnam War ended. They entered the U.S. through a legal refugee process or were paroled into the United States. Today, the median income of households headed by Vietnamese immigrants is higher than U.S.-born headed households, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The United States should focus on providing legal ways for people from Central America to escape situations they consider desperate enough to risk the dangerous journey to the U.S. border. That would include, among other things, temporary work visas, in-country refugee processing and working with Central American governments to reduce the circumstances that compel their citizens to flee.
Central American families do not represent a security threat, unlike, for example, cyber warfare, which in comparison receives little attention. “Even after a decade of debate it’s still not clear who in the federal government, if anyone, is responsible for defending the country – and the economy – from the most sophisticated cyberattacks,” writes David E. Sanger, author of The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age.
Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, it is safe to say no one in Congress or the executive branch thought the primary focus of the Department of Homeland Security would be to stop Central American families from coming to the United States to work or seek asylum.