By Laura Briggs, author of Taking Children: A History of American Terror
On August 14, 2020, a US government watchdog agency found that the top two leaders of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were unlawfully serving in their roles. President Trump, afraid that Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli were too unqualified and extremist to be confirmed even by Mitch McConnell’s Senate, circumvented the process and appointed them to interim positions as “acting” secretary and “acting” deputy. The General Accounting Office held that this was an “invalid order of succession.”
That makes the actions of its constituent parts, including Border Patrol (Customs and Border Protection) and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), illegal.
It’s time to ask whether the department, a 20-year old experiment announced by George W. Bush after September 11th, has failed. Is it, as defenders claim, a law enforcement agency that is carrying out the nation’s laws—whether we agree with them or not—or has it become a government-sponsored right-wing terror group?
In recent weeks, we have heard that members of Border Patrol who separated children from their parents in a Texas dry run of the 2018 “Zero Tolerance” policy lost the parents of more than 100 children, who entered the country with their parents in order to apply for asylum. And a private contractor hired by ICE has performed unnecessary medical procedures—including surgical sterilization—on nineteen women in Georgia, housed in the Irwin Country Detention Center. ICE officers in Mississippi have been credibly accused of torturing asylum-seekers from Cameroon, trying to force them to withdraw their petitions for asylum. Meanwhile, others who are awaiting the asylum hearings guaranteed to those who fear for their lives or well-being by US and international law are being forced into squalid refugee camps on the US-Mexico border.
Under Trump, members of DHS have become the president’s Stasi, going after people he doesn’t like. Bortac, a paramilitary unit of the Border Patrol, helped clear lawful protesters from Lafayette Park in June to allow the president his photo op with a Bible. It was the unit that rolled out on Portland in July to terrorize journalists and supporters of Black lives. It arrested members of a humanitarian aid group assisting immigrants in the Southwest desert and ransacked their medical camp on the border. Trump sent Bortac to arrest immigrants in Sanctuary cities, and is threatening to deploy it against cities led by Democrats—including Chicago, New York, and Albuquerque.
Even mainstream commentators have started to use the word “fascism” to describe the actions of DHS. Tom Ridge, a Republican and the first secretary of Homeland Security, said he was angry about what DHS had become. It was not created “to be the President’s personal militia,” he said.
DHS is acting so far outside of the regular channels of government—refusing to respond to oversight by either the courts or Congress—that members of the House of Representatives’ have petitioned the United Nations for an inquiry into the department’s human rights abuses. It’s not hard to figure out why they have become lawless. It has everything to do with the white nationalists at Border Patrol—we can read their words in posts in an employee Facebook group that celebrated the sexual assault and murder of migrants and other Latinx people, including hate-posts of sexual violence against House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Over the past six years, nearly 15,000 complaints of sexual abuse have been filed against ICE agents, almost none investigated by DHS. The agency has overturned naturalization proceedings and held U.S. citizens for months, even years, in immigration detention. It illegally spent $2.5 billion in U.S. military funds to build 200 miles of border wall. ICE agents have picked up people it deemed eligible for deportation—often without any legal basis—as they left churches or took their children to school.
The crowning case against DHS, of course, was the 2018 and 2019 policy of separating children from their families and putting them into detention camps where they suffered trauma, illness, and in at least seven cases, death. When the ACLU took DHS to court to demand that they return children who had been wrongly separated from their kin and caregivers, DHS officials admitted that they had not even kept records that would allow them to return the children to their parents. The apparently senseless cruelty that separated more than 4,000 children from their parents was designed to terrorize those fleeing violence from petitioning for asylum, a right guaranteed them by U.S. and international law since the Holocaust and World War II.
Since March, DHS has finally succeeded in accomplishing what the child-separation policy tried to do but failed: it has effectively ended the right to asylum in the United States. Over the past seven months, using the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext, DHS has deported thousands of people, including children, without allowing them to petition for asylum. Indeed, since March 20, despite the unremitting refugee crisis from Central America, caused in no small part by U.S. policies, only two people have been granted asylum from anywhere in the world.
Yet if the country and the world were shocked by the cruelty of the child-separation policy under Trump, they shouldn’t have been. As I write in my book, Taking Children: A History of American Terror, the U.S. has a long history of taking children for political ends. And in this specific case, child-separation has been DHS policy since its inception in 2002. A 2003 report by Amnesty International found that children seeking asylum were being held by ICE in deplorable conditions—strip searched, shackled, sent to solitary confinement for offenses like poor sportsmanship, grammatical mistakes, and swearing. In 2005, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee found that DHS was separating children and babies—even nursing infants—from their parents, and drafted a “Keeping Families Together” Act. ICE raids at workplaces during the George W. Bush and Trump administrations left children behind and alone at school and daycare. The Obama administration promised to reform DHS treatment of children, but ultimately it, too, failed to rein in the agency. Indeed, during the Obama administration, when mothers in seemingly endless ICE detention went on a hunger strike to protest the failure of DHS to hold asylum hearings for them, the agency tried to separate children and put mothers and children in solitary confinement as punishment.
In 2017 and 2018, when the Border Patrol separation and detention of children was on the front pages of newspapers, Democratic politicians called it “un-American” on Twitter. The history of the past two decades is more complicated, suggesting that it has become a regular feature of what ICE and Border Patrol do.
We have to choose which America we want. If we want to get rid of policies like these, we have to abolish DHS.