Twenty years ago this month, the U.S. government took a sharp turn toward surveillance, racial profiling, and an immigration policy based on fear.
In March 2003, the newly christened Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, opened its doors. The department took everything from immigration enforcement and counterterrorism to airport security and disaster response under one gargantuan bureaucracy.
Despite these wide-ranging missions, the department’s unifying logic in the post 9/11 era has been to wage the so-called war on terror at home. The result has been systemic abuse of minority communities, a dangerous militarization of American life, and a massive waste of money that sapped resources from addressing the real threats to our homeland.
From its earliest beginnings, DHS has been associated with some of our country’s worst scandals.
These abuses aren’t peripheral to the department’s operations—they’re central. About a third of DHS funding goes to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) alone.
Over the past 20 years, DHS has overseen the deportation of more than 5 million people, most of whom had broken no law other than being in the country. Those deportations represent countless family separations and lives disrupted for no discernable gain, and often at a great cost to local communities.
In a few extreme cases, an overzealous DHS has even deported U.S. citizens. But that’s just the beginning of its impact on U.S. communities.
DHS agencies have militarized U.S. streets, sending officers in tactical gear to respond to civilian protests and conducting surveillance of U.S. citizens engaged in constitutionally protected activities. There are stories of DHS drones surveilling Indigenous water and land protectors and DHS forces spying on Black Lives Matter protesters. DHS even monitored journalists who reported on the department’s tactics.
None of these abuses have come cheap.
Since its founding in 2003, the U.S. has spent $1.4 trillion on the agency. That’s more than seven times what the government spent over the same period on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including the CDC’s COVID-19 pandemic response—and more than five times more than on the Environmental Protection Agency.