Abolish the Department of Homeland Security
The department is ripe for executive overreach, and it shows disregard for basic civil rights and liberties.

Photograph of protesters in front of an American flag with BLM in black letters written on it.

Federal officers have abducted protesters in Portland. OPB reported on July 15 the story of two protesters, Mark Pettibone and Conner O’Shea, who were warned that unknown, camouflaged drivers in unmarked vehicles were taking people off the street. Moments later, five agents pulled up in a minivan and grabbed Pettibone while O’Shea ran and hid. “I am basically tossed into the van,” Pettibone said. “And I had my beanie pulled over my face so I couldn’t see and they held my hands over my head.” He was driven around downtown, taken into the federal courthouse—a fact he was not aware of until his release—and patted down while unidentified federal officers went through his belongings and took pictures of him. The officers did not tell Pettibone why he was arrested. He was put in a cell, read his Miranda rights, and asked to answer questions. When he refused to speak and requested a lawyer, he was released with no citation or record of his arrest.

This is the America we live in today. We live in a nation where federal brownshirts can arrest protesters off the street, transport them in unmarked vans, refuse to tell them where they are, and leave no trace that anything happened at all. By any reasonable measure, this meets the definition of kidnapping. But the problem goes far deeper. The Department of Homeland Security, formed in 2002 to defend the American “homeland” in response to the 9/11 attacks, shows a consistent and institutional disregard for the civil liberties of American citizens and immigrants, overstepping its bounds time and again to render the Constitution toothless. It must be abolished.

I’d like to begin by dispelling the notion that abolishing DHS is somehow “radical.” Unlike, say, the police or the military, the department is not an enduring fixture of our political and institutional landscape. It is relatively easy to imagine a world without DHS—after all, it was only created 18 years ago. The legwork necessary to create an alternate structure is, comparatively, pretty easy.  For example, almost every agency in DHS already existed prior to its formation. It would not be incredibly difficult to take U.S. Customs and Border Protection, formerly the U.S. Customs Service, for instance, and revert its control back to the Treasury Department. 

When the department was created, many Republicans opposed it, believing it would drastically increase the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy. According to the Washington Post in 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney opposed the department, and White House Spokesperson Ari Fleisher said in 2002, “creating a Cabinet office doesn’t solve the problem.” 

The more insidious side of DHS comes from its stated mission. In their own words, the department’s mission is to “safeguard the American people, our homeland, and our values,” and champion what they call “relentless resilience” to national security threats. Already, there are problems here. Who exactly decides what American values are? Who is “we” when they say “our homeland?” Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense when the department was founded, wrote in a letter to Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon, “The word ‘homeland’ is a strange word. ‘Homeland’ Defense sounds more German than American. Also, it smacks of isolationism, which I am uncomfortable with.” This is one area where I agree with Rumsfeld. The framing of “homeland security” underscores the use of military style rhetorical devices when describing civilian law enforcement. It is the epitome of “War on Terror” rhetoric coming home.

Photograph of a standoff of police officer guns raised, dressed in full camouflage protective gear on the streets of downtown PDX.
photos by Justin Grinnell

Back to Portland for a moment: The Nation found that Customs and Border Protection had been dispatched to Portland, a city hundreds of miles from either the northern or southern border. That doesn’t matter, however, because for CBP’s purposes, coastal borders count, too. According to the ACLU, CBP’s jurisdiction extends 100 miles inland of the border, including Portland—and two-thirds of all people living in the U.S. CBP does not require a warrant or any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing to perform a “routine search” at the border, and they have demonstrated similar actions within the border as well, though they are legally required to have probable cause to perform searches inside the 100 mile border zone.

Those CBP agents are wearing camouflage, with only a hard to see “Police” patch to identify themselves. Let us dwell on that for a minute. Federal officers, working for an agency designed to prevent unwanted visitors from coming into the country, are wearing military garb meant to allow soldiers to blend into the surroundings. Police officers in other democracies, like Japan, the UK, or Ireland, wear brightly colored green or blue uniforms with clearly identifiable markings. This synchronizes with their mission: to be a resource for the public at large. 

What signal does it send when federal police wear camouflage? When they snatch protesters off the street into unmarked minivans? CBP’s mission statement declares they exist “[t]o safeguard America’s borders thereby protecting the public from dangerous people and materials….” More specifically, they describe themselves on their website as “charged with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade.” They too are part of the War on Terror security apparatus. What does it mean when they treat American citizens as enemy combatants? 

A judge recently refused the Oregon Attorney General’s request for a temporary restraining order against federal agents. The proposed TRO would force federal agents to clearly identify themselves, and to desist from arresting protesters without probable cause. The judge argued that there was not “enough evidence that future harm would continue at the hands of the agents,” and questioned whether the state of Oregon could sue on behalf of the protesters.

This ruling is terrifying. The courts, supposedly a check on executive abuses of power, show a striking degree of deference to the federal government and law enforcement in general in situations such as these. In Seattle, a judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking an ordinance that banned the use of tear gas by police—an ordinance passed unanimously by Seattle City Council. If the judiciary will side with law enforcement over their civilian overseers, what else is there to do?

The DOJ Inspector General has opened an investigation into excessive use of force by federal agents, which is welcome news. It should be noted that the investigation was only opened a day after Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear gassed by the agents. Previously, the federal agents had beaten a Navy veteran, tear gassed the “Wall of Moms,” shot a protester in the head with “crowd control munitions,” and allegedly violated the 10th Amendment by arresting protesters off of federal property.

Photograph of police officers dressed in full camouflage protective gear on the streets of downtown PDX.
None of this is intended to let the Portland Police Bureau off the hook. They are hiding their names as well, concealing officers’ identities behind a bureaucratic maze seemingly intended to shield them from accountability. Portland Police have been using similar tactics to the federal officers for months. In fact, they had even been coordinating with federal agencies, despite claiming otherwise. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has argued that the actions of PPB, as well as Mayor and Police Commissioner Wheeler’s reluctance to rein in the police’s use of force, paved the way for federal officers to enter the city.

But the actions of DHS agents in Portland are more worrying still. Here’s a striking quote from an NBC News article written on the subject:

“We came out here dressed in T-shirts and twirling Hula-Hoops and stuff, and they started gassing us, so we came back with respirators, and they started shooting us, so we came back with vests, and they started aiming for the head, so we started wearing helmets, and now they call us terrorists,” Mac Smiff, a local Black organizer in Portland, said. “Who’s escalating this? It’s not us.”

While the militarization of police is an ever present issue, these agents’ actions are above and beyond that. They are explicitly part of the War on Terror response structure, designed to be a defense against foreign threats, not internal dissent. The semantics matter here. Police crushing a protest is one thing; the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection crushing one is another. It is but another small step from federal agents to federal troops, as the president has repeatedly threatened

The Acting Secretary of DHS, Chad Wolf, said on CBS This Morning that federal agents “have the absolutely expressed right and authority” to arrest protesters, who he called “violent criminals,” even if they were “a block, two blocks, maybe three blocks from [the federal] courthouse.” He also said in an interview with Fox News, “I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors or state governors to do our job. We’re going to do that, whether they like us there or not.” State and local officials have repeatedly told DHS they did not want their agents there, to which Wolf responded, according to Mayor Wheeler, “[He’s] basically told us to stuff it.” And to drive home the point that these deployments are politically motivated, President Trump said around the same time, “We’re looking at Chicago, too. We’re looking at New York. All run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by the radical left.” The use of federal power to quell dissent is a very slippery slope.

I hesitate to bring a dictionary definition into the discussion, but I believe it’s appropriate here: Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “fascism” as “a system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of opposition… belligerent nationalism, racism, and militarism, etc.” The federal officers in Portland are not “safeguarding” the protesters, their homeland, or their values—far from it. Instead, they are enforcing, through violence and force, a vision of the United States that has no place for protest or dissent. They are imposing, with the power of the federal government, the full force of the U.S. security apparatus, on states that want nothing to do with them. The President has already signaled that Portland is a test run, threatening to send federal agents to Detroit, Chicago and New York, among other cities, emphasizing, “These are anarchists, these are not protesters.” I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say we have already had, in the words of sociologist Bálint Magyar, an autocratic attempt, and possibly soon an autocratic breakthrough. It’s still possible to defeat Donald Trump, and the ideology he embodies, at the ballot box. That will require not just voting him out of office, but voting for pro-democracy candidates up and down the ballot. Institutions must be constantly maintained and protected, and that includes taking an active interest in the politicians we elect and their anti-democratic tendencies. There may soon come a time when we cannot defeat Trumpism—authoritarianism, fascism, whatever word you want to use—at the ballot box. We must recognize the signs of creeping autocracy and stop it in its tracks, while we still can.

Of course, no discussion of the department can be complete without examining the horrors of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency of DHS. According to the Global Detention Project, the United States has the largest immigration detention network in the world, with over 200 detention facilities nationwide holding around 30,000 people every day. In their own Enforcement and Removal Operations statistics, ICE estimated that officers arrested about 143,000 undocumented immigrants, and removed more than 267,000 from the country in FY 2019. This is an operation of gargantuan proportions.

photos by Justin Grinnell

Though they mainly arrest, detain and deport immigrants for the civil violation of crossing the border illegally, they couch their actions in the rhetoric of criminality—in that same report, ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence wrote, “…ICE remains committed to removing dangerous, recidivist criminals from our communities and restoring integrity to the nation’s immigration system.” The criminalization of immigration is a topic far too complex to fully discuss in this article. Suffice it to say that this rhetoric of protecting American citizens from big, bad, scary criminals coming across the border is yet another way in which DHS assists in the weaponization of nationalism and racism to push regressive public policy outcomes. Think of the uproar in 2018 around the “Caravan,” which the President claimed was filled with “very bad people” coming from Mexico and Central America.

Criminalizing immigrants—painting all people crossing the border with the broad brush of criminality, danger and fear—is the first step to dehumanizing them. Immigrants detained in the United States face horrific, disgusting conditions unfit for any human being. ICE detainees often spend time in CBP holding cells known as “freezers,” or hieleras, frigid cells where women and children sleep on the floor with nothing but a thin Mylar blanket. Additionally, women and children, teenagers, and adult men are held in separate cells, meaning families are often separated when detained there. Dr. Lucio Sevier, inspecting one McAllen, Texas facility after a flu outbreak in 2019, described conditions including “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food,” comparing them to “torture facilities.” 193 people have died in ICE custody since 2004.

The danger of these policies is especially apparent during the coronavirus pandemic. Acting against public health experts’ advice, ICE has continued to transfer detainees between detention centers, allowing COVID to spread among and between the populations there. ICE is alleged to have used a harmful chemical disinfectant in one California facility over 50 times a day, causing skin burns, rashes and severe bleeding among detainees. One inmate said, “When I blow my nose, blood comes out. They are treating us like animals. One person fainted and was taken out, I don’t know what happened to them. There is no fresh air.”

 ICE refuses to release detainees at high risk of dying from COVID-19 if they have any prior criminal conviction. According to a CBS News interview published in July, this includes one woman with diabetes, high blood pressure, and gallbladder inflammation— a green card holder—who is eligible for deportation due to a 1996 law that includes nonviolent misdemeanors as justification for removal. Social distancing is often impossible in these facilities, and mounting evidence that the coronavirus can spread through aerosols could mean that any amount of social distancing is meaningless in such a crowded indoor environment.  

ICE also instituted the now-infamous policy of family separation, taking children from their detained parents, who had no way to track their whereabouts or reunite with them because the government itself failed to create a system to track them. This is perhaps one of the cruelest policies this administration, or any administration, has instituted. As recently as this year, ICE agents gave detainees a choice: keep their children detained with them, or put them up for adoption. The parents were denied access to a lawyer, and language interpretation was not provided. One parent reportedly said, “We felt like they were really enjoying watching us suffer.” This is horrifying beyond words. As the director of The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) said, “A choice to be separated from your child is no choice at all.”

Photograph of a BLM fist projected onto the side of a building.
I apologize for using another dictionary definition, but this one is just as important: Webster’s defines “concentration camp” as “[a] camp where persons are confined, usually without hearings and typically under harsh conditions, often as a result of their membership in a group the government has identified as suspect.” Encyclopedia Britannica defines them as “internment centre[s] for political prisoners and members of national or minority groups who are confined for reasons of state security, exploitation, or punishment, usually by executive decree or military order. Persons are placed in such camps often on the basis of identification with a particular ethnic or political group rather than as individuals and without benefit either of indictment or fair trial.”

As I see it, ICE detention facilities meet the dictionary definition of “concentration camps.” But on a more visceral level, they evoke many of the same conditions as German camps, or American camps detaining Japanese-Americans. To be clear: these are not extermination camps. But they are concentration camps, by the clearest of definitions.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez invoked the term “concentration camps” in relation to these facilities to emphasize the meaning of “Never Again.” When we see actions in this country leading to monstrous outcomes, we must stop them at the source. We know the progression from demagoguery to dehumanization to holding camps to death camps. We have seen this before. 

Michael Zank, director of Boston University’s Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, seems to agree. He said to BU Today, Boston University’s news website, “The phrase ‘never again’ cannot just mean ‘never again the Holocaust.’ The past does not repeat itself, but it can be investigated and learned from… [T]he Holocaust did not begin with extermination camps.” The Holocaust was allowed to occur in the first place “because people didn’t care about the fate of the Jews, because they were taught to see them as enemies, and because most people never witnessed the actual killings…. Indifference allowed Jews to be systematically deprived of their rights, deported, dehumanized, enslaved, and mass-exterminated. Indifference is the issue.”

In this light, AOC’s comments were right to provoke her audience. The invocation of “concentration camps” with regards to U.S. policy is meant to ensure that a horror of that scale never happens again. Zank notes, “A better slogan, instead of ‘never again,’ is the German ‘Wehret den Anfängen,’ which means: ‘Resist the beginnings.’” We must resist the beginnings of fascism and dehumanization wherever they arise. 

The Department of Homeland Security is a dangerous weapon. It uses the language of war to suppress dissent and invade states and cities that do not want it there. It uses the specter of terrorism to detain and dehumanize migrants. It creates an air of paranoia in the country, causing many to fear when it is their turn to be kidnapped—brutalized, detained, deported—without any consideration to their rights or their humanity. It has sent secret police to patrol city streets. It is a department explicitly designed to bring the War on Terror home. It has no place in any moral nation, much less one which claims to respect every person’s self-evident rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It must be abolished, with every semblance of its inhumanity washed away. We must resist the beginnings.

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