Nine days after the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush stood before Congress and delivered one of the most consequential speeches in modern history, outlining for the country and the world the shape his administration’s new “war on terror” would take. There would be no quarter for America’s enemies, Bush vowed, and the campaign would be waged at home as well as abroad.
“Our nation has been put on notice: We are not immune from attack,” the president said. To address this vulnerability, Bush announced the creation of a new Office of Homeland Security, which would oversee “a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country against terrorism and respond to any attacks that may come.” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, Vietnam combat veteran, and friend of the president’s, would lead the effort. “These measures are essential,” Bush said. “The only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows.”
Just over a year later, on November 25, 2002, Bush signed the Homeland Security Act, paving the way for the largest restructuring of the U.S. national security state since the creation of the CIA and the Department of Defense a half-century earlier.
Bush’s once compassionate descriptions of life on the southern border gave way to a narrative of unending existential threat.
With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, a megabureaucracy comprised of 22 federal agencies, Bush’s once compassionate descriptions of life on the southern border gave way to a narrative of unending existential threat. Just six days before 9/11, Bush had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Mexican President Vicente Fox on the South Lawn of the White House to herald a new era of sweeping immigration reform. “I want to remind people: Fearful people build walls. Confident people tear them down,” he said. By the time he signed the landmark homeland security legislation 14 months later, Bush was telling reporters and lawmakers that “the front of the new war is here in America.”
Two decades after 9/11, the birth of DHS stands out as the most significant domestic consequence of the war on terror, having taken the intensity, scope, and funding of U.S. border and immigration enforcement to heights previously unseen in the nation’s history.
Through the department’s two largest components — Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which receive more federal funding than the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service, the U.S. Marshals, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined — the U.S. has become the world’s leading jailer of immigrants. Most of those individuals are held in a network of for-profit jails that exploded in profitability following the attacks. Across the Southwest, pressure to increase DHS enforcement reshaped the federal court system, with daily mass prosecutions of migrants and other low level immigration offenses consistently consuming more of the federal docket than any other crime for much of the past two decades.
Since 2001, the binational border communities that Bush once celebrated have been cut off by taller and taller walls and the planet’s most sophisticated border surveillance apparatus. In the past two decades, at least 9,000 migrants pushed by this apparatus into the country’s deadliest terrain have died. While lining the pockets of defense contractors north of the international divide, the militarization has transformed unauthorized border crossing into a massive black market, attracting organized crime, corrupt U.S. agents, and abusive Mexican security forces who target migrants as disposable commodities through systematic kidnapping and extortion.
Under President Donald Trump, public questioning of DHS, including whether it should continue to exist, became common. Family separations at the border, Border Patrol special operations teams in Portland, reports of intelligence tampering at the highest levels of the department — the scandals and reports of abuse were unending. By the summer of 2020, sitting lawmakers were expressing regret for having ever voted for the creation of the department. Top Bush and Obama-era national security officials have since called for a serious retooling of the department. Others have called for its full dismantlement.
Michael Chertoff, the second secretary of DHS, oversaw the department in the formative years of 2005 to 2009, presiding over a historic expansion of the Border Patrol and the construction of hundreds of miles of border wall. He rejects the notion that the actions the government took post-9/11 qualify as militarization.
“The truth is, the border was not well patrolled,” Chertoff told The Intercept. “I don’t think we militarized it.” By incorporating radars and sensors, DHS was aiming to “build more technical capability,” he said. “We did build some barriers, but we did not intend to build barriers across 2,000 miles,” Chertoff said. “The idea was to simply make it possible to deter and intercept illegal cross-border smuggling and that’s part of what your responsibility is — not just because of terrorism, but just in general. You’ve got to be able to control your borders.”
Erika Andiola sees that history differently. For her, the creation of DHS was about something deeper. Today, Andiola is chief advocacy officer at the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, but in 1998, she was an 11-year-old girl from Mexico crossing the border with her mother to escape an abusive father. In 2013, Andiola’s mother and brother were arrested by ICE in Phoenix. By that point, Andiola was already a nationally known undocumented activist. An online outcry spared her family members from deportation. Andiola has been fighting for the creation of a humane immigration system ever since.
“The entire narrative just became that we were the threat — we were the actual enemy of the nation.”
Last year, Andiola and RAICES produced a podcast series examining the creation and legacy of DHS. Throughout the series, Andiola makes the case that the post-9/11 collapsing of immigration into national security radically altered the quality of life for immigrants and undocumented people in the U.S. — and not for the better.
“It wasn’t just the actual policies and the funding and creation of these agencies, it was also how the framing of immigration started changing,” Andiola told The Intercept. “The entire narrative just became that we were the threat — we were the actual enemy of the nation.”
In the early days, a minor mystery surrounded the origins of DHS: How exactly did the Bush administration settle on the name?
“Etymology unknown, don’t have a clue,” Ridge told the New York Times in 2002. The name, with its linguistic ties to authoritarian regimes from the Nazis to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, was controversial. “The word ‘homeland’ is a strange word,” then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed in a February 2001 memo. “‘Homeland’ Defense sounds more German than American. Also, it smacks of isolationism, which I am uncomfortable with. Third, what we are really talking about, I suppose, is ‘population’ as opposed to ‘homeland.’ Let’s visit about this.”
Concerns about the word “homeland” would continue to crop up again and again in the coming years. The Times, in the same article that quoted Ridge, reported that the administration borrowed the term from a 1997 Pentagon report. Ridge, who suffered a stroke in July, declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story. One of his top deputies at the time, James Loy, said the paper’s reporting was accurate.
The use of “homeland” was “a clear reference to the already existing homeland defense staff inside the Pentagon,” Loy told The Intercept. For Loy, who was commandant of the Coast Guard on September 11 and later served as deputy secretary of DHS, the move from homeland defense to homeland security was the “very logical extrapolation of what it was determined the nation needed in the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11.” In his view, the U.S. had suffered an invasion by nonstate actors, specifically foreigners who had breached its perimeters. “This was something that happened to us on our turf,” Loy said. “In my estimation and in the estimation of many, many, many others, the designed effort to build a construct known as the Department of Homeland Security was exactly what this country needed in the aftermath of 9/11 because of the unique nature of that attack.”
Getting there was not easy. Though Ridge was a well-liked Republican figure — “This is a guy that left law school, left Harvard Law School, so as to be able to sign up as a sergeant in the Army in Vietnam,” Loy said — the Bush administration had long resisted calls to stand up a whole new department, let alone one of the size that DHS would become.
In the spring of 2001, former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren B. Rudman had released a report on the nation’s state of preparedness in the face of a national catastrophe, including a terror attack. The report found that the federal government’s capacities were “fragmented and inadequate.” Though he did order a “national preparedness review,” Vice President Dick Cheney opposed the creation of a new department in response to the findings on the grounds that it was “a big-government mistake,” aides told the Washington Post. Ridge was facing an uphill battle.
Multiple factors influenced the administration’s eventual change of heart. For one, Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, was moving forward with proposed legislation to create a homeland-focused department. “While many Republicans were leery about a vast new bureaucracy, they did not want to cede the homeland security issue to the Democrats,” the Post reported. In April 2002, White House chief of staff Andrew Card called together a small group of mid-level staffers to explore options for addressing concerns that the nation’s domestic security apparatus was riddled with vulnerabilities. The group became known as the “Gang of Five.” Mark Everson, then a deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget, was one of the members.
“Think big, do what’s right, and don’t worry about the politics.”
Everson, who later headed the IRS and ran against Trump on the 2016 Republican ticket, had served as deputy commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, in the 1980s, overseeing the implementation of President Ronald Reagan’s landmark 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. He recalled his boss at OMB, Mitch Daniels, giving him three instructions before joining Card’s select team: “Think big, do what’s right, and don’t worry about the politics.” Beyond that, the gang was on its own. They poured over the Hart-Rudman Commission and past studies on military homeland defense. “We looked at all of the existing proposals,” Everson told The Intercept. “There were never instructions to achieve a particular outcome.”
The gang met on a nearly daily basis and regularly presented their progress to a tightly controlled group of senior administration officials in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, the same nuclear-proof bunker under the East Wing of the White House where Cheney sheltered during 9/11. The work was highly secretive. “People were brought into the office on a need-to-know basis,” Everson recalled. After six weeks, they completed their proposal. “The remarkable thing about this in the context of Washington is the president didn’t announce the proposal until June 6, and I remember that morning turning on the radio and there was no leak of it,” Everson said. Not even Bush’s Cabinet secretaries saw it coming.
Nearly two dozen agencies, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Secret Service, were folded into the new department. The biggest changes were in the border and immigration agencies, which became Everson’s responsibility. INS was axed entirely. Customs, previously under the Treasury Department, was attached to the Border Patrol to form CBP, while an entirely new agency, ICE, was created to carry out immigration enforcement and criminal investigations with a nexus to the border.
The last time the U.S. government had done something as big as the creation of DHS, it was coming out of a world war. Forty years later, in the mid-1980s, Congress was still fine-tuning the results through legislation restructuring the Pentagon. Everson and his colleagues expected a similar, multidecade tweaking process for DHS. “There were no illusions amongst the five of us that this was going to be a perfect Swiss watch right from the get-go,” he said.
Looking back, Everson believes that the department’s creation was properly matched to the terrifying uncertainty of the moment. Experts were warning of terrorists walking into malls with bombs strapped to their backs, he noted. From his vantage point in Washington, D.C., where the most powerful military in history had seen a jet-size hole blown into its global headquarters, that scenario that felt entirely plausible. “It wasn’t a question of if,” he said, “but when.”
The surprise unveiling of DHS sent shockwaves through the federal bureaucracy. James Tomsheck remembers the moment he saw the department’s organizational chart for the first time. “Literally it looked like a plate of spaghetti,” he told The Intercept. “There were so many lines pointing in different directions and connecting different entities of the new department.”
Beginning his law enforcement career as a local cop, Tomsheck had spent two and half decades rising to the senior ranks of the Secret Service. With the creation of DHS, he would serve as the contact point between the service and the “new department.” Bit by bit, as he learned more about how the new arrangement came together, he grew increasingly concerned.
As Tomsheck saw it, the foundational problems with DHS were two-fold. First, it was conceived in a vacuum. Based on his interactions, he concluded that the Gang of Five were “very nice, very smart people, none of which had a clue how to execute a law enforcement mission.” He added: “They made a lot of mistakes because the department was created in a vacuum without any input from those that would execute the mission.” Second, once the wheels were publicly in motion, the voices shaping the creation of the largest domestic law enforcement agency in the history of the country were often those of U.S. military officials.
“A lot of good people that came from the Navy, the Coast Guard, a lot of Marines, more than a few Army — generals and admirals,” Tomsheck said. “Smart people that had served our country well but had never been involved in the execution of law enforcement and had no idea how to relate to law enforcement organizations.”
DHS officially began operations on January 24, 2003, becoming the largest agency in the federal government after the military. Ridge was sworn in that day. From the start, there were questions as to whether the new department could carry out its core missions.
In the wake of 9/11, lawmakers were intensely focused on improving information sharing between the FBI and the CIA. The new department was supposed to address the issue. One of the great ironies of DHS, however, is that despite the central role that the intelligence sharing problem played in justifying its creation, the department would never have the authority or institutional weight to meaningfully influence the relationship between the country’s premier law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Four days after Ridge was sworn in, Bush announced the creation of a new Terrorist Threat Integration Center that would specifically exist to synthesize FBI and CIA intelligence sharing — it would not fall under DHS. Ridge learned of the news from watching the president’s speech.
In place of a reckoning, the FBI and CIA became flush with cash, swagger, and congressional support.
In place of a reckoning, the FBI and CIA became flush with cash, swagger, and congressional support. When DHS officials proposed naming one of their new agencies “Investigation and Criminal Enforcement,” then-FBI director Robert Mueller quickly shot it down, telling an aide: “Over my dead body.” The bureau forced the agency to drop an investigation into terrorism funding and even got Ridge to sign a memo committing that DHS components would not undertake similar operations going forward. That agency became Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In the coming years, the DHS brand of counterterrorism for many Americans became synonymous with inconvenient and at times discriminatory airport experiences. Congress, meanwhile, would eventually find that DHS fusion centers, one of the core components of the department’s efforts to improve information sharing among local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, almost never produced valuable intelligence despite more than $1 billion in funding.
Perhaps most concerning, when elements of DHS did disseminate information on domestic threats, they sometimes found themselves in serious trouble. That was the case for Daryl Johnson. A domestic terrorism expert in the department’s intelligence office, Johnson and his team wrote a report in 2009 warning that the election of the nation’s first Black president could ignite a wave of far-right organizing, particularly around issues related to the border and immigration and blowback from wars abroad. Under pressure from Republicans, DHS quashed the report. Johnson and his team lost their jobs.
Allegations of high-level DHS intelligence meddling continued as recently last year, with a top DHS official reporting that the heads of the department pressured his office to exaggerate threats related to anti-fascists and downplay those related to the far right to legitimize Trump’s domestic political agenda.
DHS won several turf battles in the early post-9/11 era, but it had seemingly lost the war. Elbowed out of the counterterrorism big leagues, department officials turned their attention elsewhere, casting other elements of their operations as components of the global campaign against “Al Qaeda and associated forces.”
Thankfully for its most high-level proponents, this conceptual flexibility had been written into DHS’s DNA. In testimony he gave to the Senate in 2002, Ridge said that “the war on terrorism can only be conducted if we are all engaged as troops in that effort.” He also linked the department’s No. 1 priority — stopping another terror attack — to the nation’s borders: “Because terrorism is a global threat, we must have complete control over who and what enters the United States.”
In the two decades prior to 9/11, the Border Patrol had been steadily growing in size while embracing an increasingly militarized posture in the Southwest through its close relationship to the Pentagon in the war on drugs. By 2004, DHS officials, “citing concerns about terrorists crossing the nation’s borders,” had given the agency “sweeping new powers to deport illegal aliens from the frontiers with Mexico and Canada without providing them the opportunity to make their case before an immigration judge.” The following summer, Congress authorized hiring 10,000 new agents over the next five years.
Ridge announced his retirement from DHS in November 2004, before the hiring surge truly took off. Chertoff, his successor, shared the view that undocumented immigration was a clear national security threat and made it the department’s core mission to do something about it.
As head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Chertoff had spent much of 9/11 holed up inside FBI headquarters examining leads. In the two years that followed, he co-authored the Patriot Act and became one of the early legal architects of Bush’s emerging war on terror. In 2003, he was appointed as a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he remained until 2005, when the White House came calling.
“Leaving the bench for a job in executive branch is not something that would normally be attractive,” Chertoff told The Intercept. “But because I had been very much involved in the immediate response to 9/11, I felt a special obligation to follow through on what I had lived through those first couple of years.”
“The president believes — and I agree — that illegal immigration threatens our communities and our national security.”
Chertoff found a department in disarray on multiple levels. “You never have time to collect your thoughts because there are dozens of things coming at you,” he said of his feelings at the time. Chertoff quickly turned his attention to immigration and the border, issuing a six-point agenda for whipping the department into shape. That fall, in his first appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee as secretary, he delivered a report on the state of his efforts.
Since 9/11, the Bush administration had deported “several million” undocumented immigrants, Chertoff testified. Border security spending had increased by nearly 60 percent, rising to $2.7 billion a year. That very day, he said, Bush’s signing of a DHS appropriations bill would open more than $890 million to CBP and ICE alone.
The goal, the secretary told lawmakers, was the immediate removal of all undocumented individuals crossing the border and the construction of the “tough enforcement regime” throughout the interior of the country.
“The president believes — and I agree — that illegal immigration threatens our communities and our national security,” Chertoff testified.
When the twin towers fell in 2001, the Border Patrol had just over 9,000 agents. By the end of the Bush administration, it had twice that.
Thanks to a lowering of hiring standards and a relaxation of background checks, it was the largest expansion of a law enforcement agency in the shortest amount of time ever, and it made CBP the biggest domestic policing agency in the world. By the time President Barack Obama left office, there were 21,000 Border Patrol agents, the vast majority posted in the Southwest. An agency that had a $326 million budget in 1992 had a $4.7 billion budget in 2019. The eye-popping figures reflect the spending bonanza that accompanied post-9/11 homeland security — as Ridge later told Politico, describing the early days of DHS, “People just wanted to give me unlimited amounts of money.”
As the Border Patrol’s ranks swelled, DHS applied a battlefield mindset to the agency’s area of operations, building “forward operating bases” — austere Border Patrol operations centers — north of the international divide. The department expanded the Border Patrol’s network of vehicle checkpoints. Armed federal agents — who, thanks to legislation from the Cold War, enjoyed sweeping powers to conduct warrantless searches of people and things within 100 miles of the nation’s boundaries — were posted along highways with orders to scrutinize the nationality of passing motorists.
Ostensibly meant to make border apprehensions easier, the checkpoints altered the texture of day-to-day life in border communities across the Southwest. In addition to systematic civil liberties violations against border residents and American citizens, researchers have found correlations between the checkpoint interdiction strategy and the unprecedented post-9/11 explosion in migrant deaths on the border.
Just as the war on terror spawned a network of detention centers abroad, where individuals deemed a threat to the homeland could be housed indefinitely, DHS did the same at home. Like the wars, it was a system built on private contractors. Two months after the attacks, comments by Steve Logan, CEO of the private prison company Cornell Companies, which was later bought by the industry giant GEO Group, captured the thinking of the time.
“It’s clear that since September 11, there’s a heightened focus on detention, both on the borders and in the U.S.,” Logan said in a call with investors. “Federal business is the best business for us. It’s the most consistent business for us, and the events of September 11 is increasing that business.”
Illness, physical and sexual abuse, and even deaths have been a persistent problem in the notorious facilities.
Three million people were shuttled through the U.S. immigration detention system in the decade that followed, as private immigration detention went from an industry that barely existed prior to 2001 to a $3 billion-a-year cash cow with a well-documented history of horrific abuse and negligence. For men, women, and children detained in the borderlands, entry into this apparatus nearly always entailed passing through an hielera, or ice box — cold, border jail cells absent of furniture or privacy. Like immigration detention centers more broadly, illness, physical and sexual abuse, and even deaths have been a persistent problem in the notorious facilities.
In the summer of 2006, Tomsheck retired from the Secret Service and moved over to CBP, where he soon became the agency’s top internal affairs official. For Tomsheck, this second window into the post-9/11 evolution of homeland security in America was far more disturbing than the first.
In the years after the Border Patrol hiring surge, CBP saw an average of nearly one employee a day arrested on misconduct charges, a rate that far outpaced any other law enforcement agency in the country. In 2012, the FBI deemed corruption inside the nation’s post-9/11 homeland security agencies its No. 1 domestic criminal priority.
By that point, Tomsheck had already filed a whistleblower complaint accusing top DHS officials of pressuring his office to redefine corruption so that CBP’s numbers wouldn’t be so high. Tomsheck refused and was pushed out of the agency in 2014. He has since described the CBP hiring surge as “the greatest compromise of law enforcement integrity our country has ever seen.” Earlier this year, Tomsheck and two former senior DHS colleagues went on the record with sworn statements describing an entrenched pattern of senior Border Patrol leadership covering abuses in use-of-force cases, particularly cases of lethal force.
These days, Tomsheck said, whenever he sees a story of some local or state law enforcement official accused of excessive force, he finds himself thinking about 9/11, the nation’s response to terrorism then and after, and the mentality that DHS fostered.
“Those three things together have created this militaristic mindset on the part of many state and local law enforcement officers — that they are every day going to work mentally prepared to engage with terrorists, forgetting that 99.9 percent of the time they’re functioning as local law enforcement officers, a difficult and often dangerous job,” he said. “But they’re not fighting a war.”
In the mid-2000s, while he was attending law school on the East Coast, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández made a visit home that he would not forget.
Though García grew up in McAllen, Texas, the Mexican city of Reynosa, just across the border, was like a second home; it was where his siblings were born, and it was where they were all headed for lunch when they saw the steel bollards of the border wall rising out of the banks of the Rio Grande for the first time.
“We just stared at it silently,” García told The Intercept. It felt like a message straight from the U.S. government, he said, a warning about the dangerous people on the other side of the divide. It was in that moment García understood that life as he knew it had changed, and things wouldn’t be going back to the way they were before, maybe ever.
García finished school and began making his way as a legal scholar during the Obama years, when DHS carried out a record 3 million deportations — even Trump, despite his best efforts, was unable to break Obama’s record. Today, he is a law professor at Ohio State University and one the nation’s leading experts on the intersection of criminal and immigration law. Like border militarization more broadly, “crimmigration,” as experts in the field call it, was gathering momentum in the decades before 9/11 and rocketed into the stratosphere with the creation of DHS.
“Without question, it is thrown into overdrive in the aftermath of September 11,” García said. “All of the sudden, targeting migrants became a part of how presidential administrations thought of their obligation to protect the nation.”
If ever there was an opportunity to break from this tradition, it may have been post-Trump. For many Americans, the Trump years were a horrifying introduction to the extraordinary system of immigration enforcement that has been built over the past two decades.
“All of the sudden, targeting migrants became a part of how presidential administrations thought of their obligation to protect the nation.”
So far, Alejandro Mayorkas, President Joe Biden’s DHS secretary, has continued the most sweeping border restriction of the Trump era: Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measure that’s been used to summarily expel upward of 1 million migrants, including asylum-seekers, without a hearing. The policy has caused a bottleneck of vulnerable people in the border’s most dangerous cities. In August, the organization Human Rights First documented more than 6,300 cases of violent attacks targeting individuals waiting at the border in the first seven months of the Biden administration.
At its peak under Trump, DHS was detaining an average of roughly 55,000 immigrants on any given day. After waves of infections, deaths, and detention releases resulting from Covid-19, that number dropped to a record low of 14,000 individuals earlier this year. In recent months, however, those numbers have been shooting back up.
“That was the most promising moment in the last 20 years,” García said. “The Biden administration has allowed that to evaporate.”
Among the founding and former officials who spoke to The Intercept, the legacy of DHS remains largely celebrated. Acknowledging that there were bumps along the road, most pointed to the absence of another 9/11-like event as evidence of the department’s success; none supported its wholesale dismantling. “You’re going to have a fragmented homeland security,” Chertoff said. “Everything is going to be just thrown up in the air, and you’re going to spend a lot of time trying to coordinate things that right now actually are coordinated.”
For many whose communities now exist in the shadow of the border wall, the mark that DHS has left since 9/11 looks somewhat different. “Under Republican and Democratic administrations, the wall gets longer, and it gets taller, and the surveillance gets more intense, and we continue to view migrants as dangerous and immigration as threatening,” García said. “It’s a road which has no end.”