A Legacy of Corruption and Abuse: The Post-9/11 Immigration Megabureaucracy

The United States’ hard-line immigration enforcement is one of the most significant consequences of the war on terror.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images

More than 4,600 Haitian migrants were expelled by the U.S. government in little over a week. This week on Intercepted: Recent images of Border Patrol agents on horseback pushing back Haitians along the U.S.-Mexico border led to renewed anger at the United States’ immigration enforcement methods. Investigative reporter Ryan Devereaux explains how the U.S. immigration enforcement apparatus grew to the scale that it is today, stemming from the war on terror. Since the Department of Homeland Security’s messy beginnings, the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled; immigrants detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails have denounced mistreatment and unsafe conditions; and the number of deportations has dramatically risen. As Devereaux outlines, since Homeland Security’s creation, this trend has continued throughout the Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden administrations.

[Intercepted credits music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

José Olivares: I’m José Olivares, lead producer with The Intercept.

Last week, Border Patrol agents began rounding up and expelling thousands of migrants in the border town of Del Rio, Texas:

KENS 5 San Antonio: A crisis unfolding tonight in Del Rio. Right now close to 14,000 migrants are encamped under the international bridge and surrounding areas.

Al Jazeera: In Del Rio, Texas where authorities have started mass deportations from that crowd of 15,000 migrants living in a camp sitting under a bridge. 

JO: Most of the migrants camped out at the border were Haitian, having fled due to years of instability.

MSNBC: For more than a week the island nation of Haiti has been rocked by street violence as protesters, angry over soaring inflation and government corruption, have demanded the ousting of President Jovenel Moïse.

Haitian Protester: The Haitians are tired of the system. They want the system to change and reverse, and the benefit of the communities.

PBS: In Haiti, the death toll from this month’s 7.2-magnitude earthquake continues to rise. More than 2,200 people are confirmed dead with 344 people still missing.

PBS: The country of Haiti is under a state of emergency tonight after Président Jovenel Moïse was assassinated early this morning.

JO: Many traveled through Central America and Mexico to reach the U.S. and request asylum. Images of Border Patrol agents on horseback, appearing to charge at Black Haitians surfaced, sparking public outrage. 

Border Patrol Agent: This is why your country is [bleeped], because you use your women for this. 

JO: After clearing the migrant camp, the U.S. government expelled more than 4,600 Haitians. Eight thousand people returned to Mexico, and about 13,000 others were allowed to continue their asylum claims.

The Department of Homeland Security oversees the Border Patrol. And over the weekend, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the expulsions using Title 42, one of the most sweeping and pernicious immigration laws set in motion by the Trump Administration:

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas: That is the exercise of a public health imperative. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control has a Title 42 authority that we exercise to protect the migrants themselves, to protect the local communities, our personnel, and the American public. The pandemic is not behind us. Title 42 is a public health policy, not an immigration policy.

JO: For more than 30 years now, we’ve seen president after president increasingly militarize our southern border. But an explosive growth of migration enforcement really took hold after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, from increasing the number of Border Patrol agents to expanding immigration detention centers.

Ryan Devereaux: So, the Department of Homeland Security is a massive federal bureaucracy, the second-largest largest agency in the federal government, after the Pentagon. It is home to 22 different agencies, so everything from the Secret Service to FEMA. But it is perhaps most well-known for its border and immigration enforcement elements.

JO: That’s Ryan Devereaux.

RD: I’m a staff investigative reporter with The Intercept.

JO: Ryan’s been reporting on the Department of Homeland Security — or DHS — for years.

And we’ve heard the horror stories:

CBS: Well, it could take years to identify possibly thousands of immigrant children separated from their families at the southern border. 

MSNBC: An alarming new whistleblower complaint that alleges “high numbers” of female detainees detained immigrants and an ICE detention center in Georgia received questionable hysterectomies while in ICE custody.

NPR: Federal agents have used unmarked vehicles to grab protesters off the streets and critics say they did not have probable cause.

JO: But DHS is not an old Department. It’s actually pretty new. And some of its agencies are as well:

RD: It’s a relatively new agency that was born straight out of the Sept. 11 attacks. While the department’s purview is domestic, DHS has officers and agents stationed around the world, particularly through the Border Patrol, through CBP, through ICE. So it’s a very enormous and unique element within the U.S. government.

JO: Ryan and I spoke about the history of DHS, what exactly this massive Department does, and how the U.S.’s immigration enforcement apparatus became one of the biggest domestic legacies of the War on Terror.

RD: It’s worth remembering that the creation of the Department of Homeland Security was the largest restructuring of the US national security state since 1947, since the creation of the CIA and the Department of Defense. So, in terms of scale and scope, you really can’t overstate how huge this endeavor was to bring together all of these different agencies with all of these different backgrounds, different missions, different identities. It was highly controversial, and frankly, a pretty messy process. 

The last time the government did something this big was in 1947, coming out of World War II, when the security-state apparatus was restructured and we created the CIA, and the Pentagon. And we know how big of an impact that sort of restructuring had on not just the United States, but the world. The creation of DHS was similarly massive. 

It’s pretty fascinating. If you go back and look at what George W. Bush was up to in the months preceding 9/11, especially with respect to the border and immigration. Bush was a former Texas governor, and he positioned immigration reform as a central pillar of what he was going to be about. And his first foreign trip as president was actually to Mexico, where he visited then also newly-elected President Vicente Fox.

President George W. Bush: Muchísimas gracias, amigo, el presidente de México.

RD: And just a few months after that fox came to Washington, where he met with Bush on the White House lawn and they sort of heralded a new day of immigration reform that was coming, and a sort of new relationship between the United States and Mexico, especially with respect to the border.

VF: [Translated] The time has come to give migrants and their communities the proper place in our history of bilateral relations. Both our countries owe them a great deal.

RD: The way that President Bush talked about the border and immigration then just sounds so markedly different than what we’ve become used to in the post-9/11 years. 

GWB: We both recognize how important the contribution to our economy, the Mexican workers has made, that we want people treated with respect.

RD: Just six days after the address:

CNN: This just in, you are looking at an obviously very disturbing live shot there. That is the World Trade Center. And we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers.

Eyewitness News: The unthinkable happened today, the World Trade Center, both towers gone, and we are all witnesses to it. And to some degree, we are all victims tonight.

RD: And everything that the two presidents had been talking about seemed to go out the window.

JO: So what exactly happened after 9/11? I mean, we see these attacks that really kind of shake up the foundations of American society. What happens after that?

RD: Within just a couple weeks, President Bush gives this address to Congress, where he sort of outlines for the first time what he calls the War on Terror is going to look like.

GWB: Our War on Terror begins with al Qaeda. But it does not end there.

RD: It’s a famous speech. It’s the one where Bush talks about how this will be a war that is conducted not only abroad but at home as well.

GWB: We will direct every resource at our command. Every means of diplomacy. Every tool of intelligence.

RD: Bush describes how Sept. 11 was this wakeup call in which the American people came to the realization that they were vulnerable. And in response to this vulnerability, President Bush announced that he was going to create an office of Homeland Security.

GWB: So tonight, I announced the creation of a cabinet-level position, reporting directly to me, the Office of Homeland Security.

RD: And the chief mission of that office would be to ensure that something like this never happened again. And Bush selected Pennsylvania governor, Republican, former Vietnam combat veteran Tom Ridge to fill that role.

GWB: He will lead, oversee and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country against terrorism.

RD: At the beginning, this was supposed to be an office in the White House, one office. But, before long, it would turn into much, much more. It would become this massive, sprawling bureaucracy that we know now is DHS. But it was a rocky road at the beginning there. The Bush administration initially resisted the idea of creating a new cabinet-level department, especially one of the size that the DHS would ultimately become.

JO: So the Office of Homeland Security is established. What marks the transition from just an office within the executive branch to an entire department within the executive branch with so many agencies? What happened there?

RD: While the Bush administration initially resisted the idea of creating a whole new department, they eventually sort of came around to it. And there were multiple factors influencing their decision-making at the time. And for one thing, Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, was pushing forward with legislation to create some sort of cabinet-level homeland-focused department. Cheney aides, at one point, would tell the Washington Post, the administration was not interested in being outflanked by the Democrats on this issue and sort of started to come to a different position on the creation of a department. 

And so in early 2002, the White House convenes a small team of five individuals, they become known as the Gang of Five, they were a group of mid-level officials who were told to explore this issue of vulnerabilities to the United States on the home front, and potential solutions. And so these five officials kind of just huddled together day after day, for six weeks, and explored different conversations, reports about how a nation can structure its so-called Homeland Security apparatus. And they would meet in this secret White House bunker where Cheney had hid during the Sept. 11 attacks, deliver their progress reports to a very tightly controlled set of officials within the Bush administration — I mean, this was a highly secretive operation.The folks involved didn’t want this to leak on the Hill, there’s a lot of competing interests between the different agencies who could potentially be folded into this new department, if that’s the direction that they went. No agency in Washington wants to lose its access to funding and wants to become subordinate to some other agency that had that it wasn’t before. So it was very much a need-to-know basis type of operation, or at least that’s the way it was seen by the people who were participating in it. 

After six weeks of meetings in summer of 2002, Bush comes out with this announcement that the United States is going to build this enormous new department, comprised of 22 federal agencies, and it’s going to be called the Department of Homeland Security, and its central focus is going to be stopping another terror attack on U.S. soil.

GWB: Mr. Vice President and Governor Ridge, thank you all. I want to thank the members of Congress who have come to discuss the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

RD: This announcement came as a massive shock to officials across the federal bureaucracy; cabinet-level leaders had no idea that this was in the works. And I talked to sources for my reporting who recounted what it was like when they first saw the organizational chart. One described it to me as looking like a “plate of spaghetti.” There were all of these lines supposedly going to connect these different agencies to one another and these different authorities. It was an enormous shock in Washington. 

The biggest change that resulted from the creation of DHS had to do with its largest components, and those would be the border and immigration elements. So prior to 9/11, the United States’ chief immigration agency was INS, and INS was under the Department of Justice. INS was the only federal agency after 9/11 to be axed entirely, and was created in place was a new sort of fusion of U.S. Customs and the Border Patrol into a new agency, Customs and Border Protection. And there was also a new element created under the DHS structure, which is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is ICE. So ICE would be responsible for deportation operations and also criminal investigations, in cases having anything to do with a sort of border nexus. That was the idea. 

While it’s important to look at all of the agencies that were folded into DHS, it’s also worth noting the ones that were not many of the United States, top federal law enforcement agencies were not included the ATF DEA, most notably neither the FBI nor the CIA fell under DHS. And there was this really intense pressure from lawmakers in the aftermath of 9/11 to fix the problem of information-sharing between the FBI and the CIA. The Department of Homeland Security was extensively supposed to address this somehow; DHS never really had the sort of institutional weight to meaningfully influence the relationship between the nation’s premier federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. So what you have is this huge federal bureaucracy that is supposed to be primarily about counterterrorism and synthesizing of intelligence-sharing, that is really struggling next to existing institutions that have been around in the United States for decades with that same mission. 

So, I think you can argue that having been sort of elbowed out of the big leagues of counterterrorism, DHS shifted its focus elsewhere. And the department always had a kind of flexibility in its mission or saw its mission broadly. It was an idea that in this new War on Terror, all of these different elements of government were part of the fight. And all of their different missions were part of the fight, and very quickly, immigration and the border became part of that fight, and where DHS really exercised its muscle post 9/11.

JO: So let’s start breaking down some of that. The Border Patrol has already been around for decades, and then it’s looped into DHS. How did the Border Patrol then evolve? What happened to that police force under DHS?

RD: So there’s this idea that after 9/11, the Border Patrol really explodes into this huge sort of paramilitary force. And while that’s true, it’s also important to understand that the Border Patrol had been growing in size for the two decades prior to 9/11. It had been developing a much closer relationship to the Pentagon in the war on drugs. And it was already becoming a much more militarized agency by the time Sept. 11 happens. 

And so after 9/11, and the creation of DHS, and the collapsing of national security and immigration, the Border Patrol just grows enormously in size. There’s a sort of demand in Washington for more boots on the ground, and thus begins the sort of largest and fastest expansion of a law enforcement agency ever. The Border Patrol goes from having around 9,000 agents on Sept. 10, 2001, to, by the time we get to the Obama administration, that number is up to around 21,000 agents. 

And the Bush administration pushed this huge, rapid expansion of the Border Patrol, relying on the sort of lowering of hiring standards that resulted in just waves of new agents. And along with these waves of new agents came a lot of corruption and a lot of abuse. So there was a seven-year period, roughly, in the mid 2000s, spanning from Bush into the Obama administration where, on average, roughly one CDP — Customs and Border Protection, so including Border Patrol — employee was arrested on some sort of corruption charges every day.

CBS: Right now, five men including Border Patrol agent Joel Luna are jailed in connection with Palacio Paz’s murder, and all are believed to be linked to the Gulf Cartel.

CNN: Just in, about a U.S. Border Patrol agent described as a serial killer, and a woman’s daring escape that led to his arrest. 

KENS 5 San Antonio: It’s shocking video: Border Patrol agents caught destroying food and water left in the Arizona desert for immigrants. The aid was supplied by a humanitarian organization looking to save them from the sometimes-deadly journey.

CNN: U.S. Border Patrol says they’re investigating reports of disturbing social media activity on a secret Facebook group for Border Patrol agents. These posts included vulgar comments about Latino lawmakers and twisted remarks about migrant deaths.

RD: An agency that had sort of been considered a backwater for years and years and years was suddenly just flush with cash and new agents, new technologies, and new legal powers to apprehend and remove people. 

KPNX 12 News: The Department of Homeland Security issued an urgent warning about the conditions inside migrant detention centers in Texas. 

KPBS: Hundreds of instances of minors alleging abuse by Border Patrol agents all along the U.S.-Mexico border. The minors say they were beaten while handcuffed, run over in ATVs, and bitten by dogs assisting agents. 

RD: During this period when we see the Border Patrol expand, CBP expand, DHS expand, we also see a huge explosion in private immigration detention, the places where they take these people who are arrested and those often become the sites of a lot of misery and suffering post 911.

JO: Regarding the question of private, for-profit detention practices for immigration detention, that brings up the role of ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Tell us what ICE’s role has been these past almost two decades since DHS was established.

RD: ICE had been created as a mishmash of personnel from different agencies that had different missions and different identities. You would have some sort of immigration specialists or investigators, and you would have some customs folks, and they’re all sort of told to come together and work together with this sort of amorphous and evolving mission. And it takes a bit of time for ICE to find its identity. In many ways, it’s still a sort of agency ridden with divisions. The agents who do criminal investigations tend to see their work as distinct from the officers who are responsible for deportations. 

But broadly, what ICE becomes is a large and powerful federal law enforcement agency that is responsible for the explosion in deportations that happened in the Bush and especially Obama years. And ICE does a lot of the immigration enforcement work in the interior of the country, and that really does pick up a lot under President Obama. 

ICE is also responsible for the immigration detention facilities across the country, though a lot of that work is contracted out to these massive private-prison corporations. 

KPNX: Officers at an Eloy ICE detention facility used excessive force, verbally abused migrants, and neglected their medical needs. That is all according to a new federal watchdog report.

Democracy Now!: Pedro Arriago-Santoya was the fourth person to die at Stewart in just two years, and the seventh person to die while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since October.

PBS: Data from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General show that thousands of migrants have claimed they were sexually abused while in ICE custody.

NPR: A whistleblower complaint filed this week alleges that immigrant detainees at a privately operated detention facility in Georgia were subjected to hysterectomies at an alarmingly high rate.

RD: So as immigration and border enforcement becomes this top national security priority following 9/11, we see what you would expect, which is a lot more people arrested and a lot more people deported. 

The Obama administration pioneers or really expands the collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE, particularly in the first term of the Obama administration, through a program called Secure Communities, principally. And the result is more deportations than any president in the history of the United States.

President Barack H. Obama: We’ve put border security ahead of the pathway to citizenship. We have done more on border security in the last four years than we had done in the previous 20.

Univision: The Latino community has been furious for years, saying President Obama has deported more undocumented workers than President Bush did.

BO: We are still sending a message to people who have not yet come here. We’re going to be enforcing those immigration laws so that newcomers, people who just arrived, you are likely to be sent back.

RD: So throughout the 2000s, the Bush and Obama years, while DHS was putting all of this focus on immigration enforcement and the border, a lot of concerning things were happening in some of its other areas of responsibility, especially one that ostensibly should be core to the department’s mission, which is dealing with the threat of domestic terrorism. In the United States, historically, that threat has come from the far-right. 

And in 2009, the department had a small desk devoted to this particular issue, and a top intelligence analyst by the name Daryl Johnson. And Johnson in his office saw that with the election of Barack Obama, the first Black president, a pickup in intensity and organization among the far-right and the paramilitary far-right the United States, and they wrote a report warning that this could intensify in the coming years, particularly related to issues around the border and immigration. 

Johnson’s report and his team were effectively shut down under Republican pressure. The report was buried and they all basically lost their jobs. I think the story of what happened to Johnson and his team and the threat that was sort of bubbling up and ignored and sort of pushed under the rug during this mid 2000s Obama-era period is instructive about the sort of larger story of the Department of Homeland Security and where its priorities and interests have been directed, where its work has been directed. Because during this period where you have this intense focus on the border and this intense focus on migrants, this other issue is completely waylaid.

So, the Department of Homeland Security was extensively designed to synthesize terror-related information and have a sort of laser focus on potential threats to Americans here in this country. One of the things that they did to address this problem was to stand up all of these so-called Fusion Centers around the country. These were supposed to be places where DHS would sort of synthesize and distribute intelligence related information between state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies, just to make sure that everybody’s on the same page. 

By the first term of the Obama administration, it becomes clear to lawmakers that despite more than $1 billion in funding, these centers almost never produced any actionable intelligence. You can fast forward a bit, by the summer 2020, the protests over the killing of George Floyd, these fusion centers become pipelines for misinformation from the federal government to police, and back and forth.

JO: So later, we see the Trump administration use rhetoric that was significantly more anti-immigrant.

President Donald J. Trump: Build that wall! Build that wall! Build that wall! Build that wall! [Echoing back to him.]

JO: And the Department of Homeland Security and its actions just gathered significantly more attention. But would you see the way Trump used DHS was more aggressive? In terms of deportations, he didn’t even reach the numbers that Obama did. But would you say that DHS was more aggressive?

RD: In many, many, many ways DHS under Trump was an extension of what DHS was under Obama, and what it was under Bush, and some of the core functions remained exactly the same. 

I think the big differences in the Trump era were that one, the most hard-right elements within DHS, within the agencies, had a direct line to the President. I’m thinking in particular about the Border Patrol’s union, for example, which developed a very tight relationship with the administration and a very tight relationship, in particular, with Stephen Miller, the architect of the President’s immigration agenda, and policies.

DJT: And a man who’s really become a friend in a sense, Brandon. I will say this, Brandon Judd has been a stalwart in terms of justice for people, in terms of fairness.

Brandon Judd: Thank you, president. We really appreciate all the support that you’ve given the the Border Patrol. We appreciate the support that you’ve given ICE. My name is Brandon Judd, I’m the president of the National Border Patrol Council. 

RD: And that is a major and significant thing, because the Border Patrol’s union is extremely hard-right in its views on immigration enforcement. 

Also, the sort of politicization of DHS more broadly, while always having been, to be clear, an issue from the very beginning, really kicked into overdrive under President Trump, to the point where by the end of the administration, in the summer of 2020, while the George Floyd protests were happening, it was quite clear that the top officials at the department, or acting officials who were not lawfully appointed to their positions, were playing essentially surrogates for the president, inflating notions of a threat from left-wing activists in the street, while downplaying actual evidence circulated within their own department of threats from the far right. And that’s not just me saying that. The head of the department’s Intelligence and Analysis Office filed a whistleblower complaint detailing the pressure that was put on him to tamper with intelligence related to the protests. And this was a trend that had been building throughout the entire administration.

So I believe that what we saw during the Trump years is the potential that has always been there in the creation of a massive interior security agency dedicated to this sort of malleable, potentially dangerous idea of an imperiled homeland.

JO: So under Trump, we saw DHS responsible for the family-separation crisis. We also saw Border Patrol agents taking protesters off the street in Portland during the Black Lives Matter protests. We saw a lot of people die of Covid-19 within its privately run immigration jails. And we also saw secretaries and the top DHS officials essentially cycle through the department. 

There was also an immense amount of anger against DHS. We saw the demand to abolish ICE explode under the Trump administration. But, like you said, it is just a continuation of the groundwork of Obama-era policies and Bush-era policies. But do you think with Biden in office now that we’re going to continue to see anger at DHS, and we’re going to continue to see these demands?

RD: National attention on immigration and the border comes in waves, and it’s been that way for generations. I think that the communities directly impacted by the Department of Homeland Security will take the same position that they did under Trump, which is the position that they took under Obama, which is the position that they took under Bush, which is that by collapsing national security and immigration, entire communities of people have been vilified and criminalized. And so that’s a consistent thread going into administration number four in the larger DHS history. So, on some level, I expect things on that front to continue thus far.

In terms of the broader national outrage over the way that post-9/11 Immigration and Border enforcement functions, we just haven’t seen the sort of pushback that we saw during family separation, for example. And it was already waning by the end of the Trump administration interest in these issues. 

Right now, the Biden administration’s Department of Homeland Security is continuing what is the most sweeping and punishing border related policy of the Trump era, which is Title 42, ostensibly a public health measure, that is empowers Border Patrol agents to summarily expel migrants, including asylum seekers, without any semblance of due process. As a result of those expulsions, hovering around a million people, tens of thousands of very vulnerable individuals are backed up in the border’s most dangerous cities, and are the targets, systematically, of a whole litany of abuses, including kidnapping and murder. That is a reality that continues to this day, and we don’t see anywhere near the kind of outrage that we saw during the Trump years.

JO: So what is happening now under the Biden administration and under DHS Secretary Mayorkas?

RD: So during the Trump years, there was an average of around 55,000 to 60,000 immigrants held in detention on any given day. With the onset of the coronavirus and, and following waves of infections, and deaths and hunger strikes, ICE began releasing people. And earlier this year, the ICE detainee population dropped to a record low, around 14,000 people. 

In recent months, however, under the Biden administration, those numbers have been shooting up again. And that is while the Biden administration is continuing to enforce Title 42 along the border. It’s alongside the order from the Supreme Court, recently, commanding the Biden administration to revive the Trump-era program Remain in Mexico.

Shepard Smith (CNBC): The Supreme Court ruled just yesterday that the White House must restart that Trump-era Remain in Mexico policy.

NBC: It required people seeking asylum to wait outside the country while their claims were considered. Tens of thousands lingered in makeshift tent cities. Human rights groups said many were attacked by criminals and drug gangs.

RD: Reportedly, some of the Biden administration’s immigration officials support actually reviving the policy. 

On a lot of levels — on a lot of the most meaningful, important levels — this administration is continuing what the Trump administration and administration’s before Trump’s did with respect to the border. It is still sort of hooked on a mentality that there’s a threat there. There’s no question that this administration has a sort of sensitivity to tone, and is not going to talk about migrants in the way that the Trump administration did. But the message is still: Don’t come.

Vice President Kamala Harris: I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come.

RD: The administration is still relying on the Mexican government and highly problematic Mexican security forces to interdict migrants making their way north through Mexico. And it feels like almost daily, now, I’m seeing videos of Mexican national guard beating up migrants.

So we see the creation of DHS after 9/11. And the original goal, which was information sharing, and domestic security, etc, it’s not really accomplished. But in terms of migration, DHS has aggressively policed it. And as a result, we’ve seen just tremendous human misery in terms of communities at the border and how they’re treated, or people reaching the U.S. and seeking asylum or people detained by ICE and who ICE in ICE jails or who are deported to extremely dangerous or precarious places. With the sources you’ve spoken with, who helped create DHS, do they have any regrets? Or do they feel any sort of way in terms of how powerful this department is, and really how much misery it’s caused in the past almost two decades.

The sources I spoke to who were around the sort of founding and creation of DHS who were in leadership roles in its early years, when I would ask them: How do you feel about these arguments for dismantling the department? It hasn’t been around that long, it’s not just “abolish ICE” people who are saying it; we are seeing former Bush administration officials call for the dismantling of the department; we’ve seen sitting lawmakers say they regret voting for it. I mean the sources that I spoke to opposed it. They opposed dismantling the department. They take the view that: Yeah, it was messy, and there were bumps in the road, but we prevented another foreign-born terror attack on the United States. 

There is a recognition, or at least there was among some of the sources that I spoke to, that fear did play a role in the creation of this department. And that can obviously lead to problems. But in terms of regret, I didn’t get that impression. And I’m not surprised either, because what I’ve found in doing this reporting over the years is that there’s a pretty enormous disconnect between Washington and the places where DHS policy is often most felt. For people who grew up in communities that were radically altered after DHS was created, on the basis that their binational qualities presented a threat to the rest of the country — for those who grew up in that environment and context, the legacy of DHS looks a lot different.

JO: Ryan, you’ve been reporting on DHS for years. Its internal practices. Its agencies. You’ve been very closely reporting on this. What do you see for the future of the department 20 years after 9/11?

RD: Right now, we are living through the greatest era of human migration ever. And that is only expected to intensify with the climate crisis in the decades to come. 

Right now, we have a massive federal bureaucracy that is focused on the border and migration through the lens of a paramilitary force, and through the prism of national security, and threats, and danger. Already, we have seen over the past two decades, that department reveal itself to be malleable to would-be authoritarian presidents. We’ve seen it carry on its operations even in the face of just a staggering amount of evidence that it runs horrific detention centers, that its personnel are routinely engaged in corruption and abuse. And yet, it’s still with us in that form. 

So I guess the point is: The issues aren’t going away. And if we continue to have an institution like this set up as our frontline response to it, I don’t expect a better situation in terms of human rights, and recognizing the dignity of people in migration.

JO: Ryan Devereaux is an investigative reporter with The Intercept.

[Credits music.]

JO: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Supervising Producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show.

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