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Deconstructing the Department of Homeland Security

DHS Sign
Deconstructing the Department of Homeland Security

Law and Order is but one issue at the top of President Trump’s agenda. Yet, is the Department of Homeland Security fit for purpose?

In 2002, in response to the terror attacks upon the United States the year before, Congress created a new super bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  In 14 years of existence it’s become the 3rd largest cabinet department, after Defense and Veterans Affairs.  It contains 22 components, 6 of which are law enforcement agencies, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), formerly independent body.  DHS is now the largest law enforcement agency in America, surpassing the 37,000 members of the New York City Police Department.

However, and this is an important point often confused by the public, it’s not a national police force, nor can it enforce state or local laws.  Each of its components has specialized functions covering different matters, with some overlap.  Despite claims reiterated online, it does not have thousands of federal police officers dressed in SWAT gear, driving around in MRAPS or other armored vehicles, awaiting orders from the president to take over all policing in the United States.  That narrative is in the realm of nonsensical conspiracy theory.

DHS has 15 other major components, mostly intelligence units, and a discussion of them and the role of FEMA will be undertaken in later articles. Herein we’ll look at its 5 of the 6 law enforcement agencies packed into DHS (something this writer never thought was a sound idea), to better understand what they do.  I’ve previously dissected the dysfunctional Transportation Security Administration in an earlier piece.

The largest DHS agency is Customs and Border Protection (CPB).  Its mission is to operate U.S. ports of entry, such as airports, land border stations and seaports, as well as patrol border areas where crossings are unauthorized.  CBP has about 22,000 officers working at 330 ports of entry, checking inbound and outbound passengers, their belongings and cargo, for compliance with customs and immigration laws.  In addition they employ about 2,200 Agriculture Specialists who enforce laws governing the importation of organic material and the public health regulations of the Centers for Disease Control.

Along the land borders, CPB fields the U.S. Border Patrol, using 24,000 patrol agents to apprehend migrants, drug smugglers (“mules”), and human traffickers (“coyotes”) trying to illegally enter the country.  They are assisted by about 1,100 Air and Marine Interdiction Agents who operate a variety of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and boats, used for surveillance, coordination with ground-based CBP personnel, and apprehending violators sneaking into the U.S.

Because CBP has to cover all U.S. borders and entry points (as well as 14 pre-clearance locations in other countries such as Bermuda), they are understaffed and overworked. We have about 8,000 miles of borders, and shift work reduces by 35 percent the personnel on duty at any time.  All sworn CBP personnel have the powers of both customs and immigration officers, full federal law enforcement authority, and other than the agricultural inspectors, are armed.  In 2017, expect to see a 20 percent increase in the staff of the CBP to further the Trump Administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

Security Theater and the TSA

Another DHS component, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), has as one of its tasks a law enforcement role in protecting our waters and shores.  All of its 37,000 active duty personnel have the statutory powers of federal customs and immigration officers.  As the USCG is not part of the Defense Department, it’s exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of the military for civilian law enforcement.  Nevertheless, Coast Guard enlisted and officer ranks still work under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  The Coast Guard has about 3,800 armed maritime boarding officers and 200 special agents, enforcing federal laws on U.S. navigable waterways, usually within our territorial waters, but also on the high seas and abroad.  Most of those duties involve drug and migrant interdiction at sea, and domestic port security.  They work closely with CBP Air and Marine Interdiction agents, usually to stop air or watercraft being tracked, or pursued by that agency.

The largest investigative arm of the DHS is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), divided into 2 units, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO).  The latter is responsible for the apprehension, detention and deportation of persons determined to be illegally in the United States and employs about 7,600 officers nationwide.  They are the ones usually seen in the media taking aliens into custody.

The 7,000 HSI special agents perform the duties formerly done by the criminal investigators of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the special agents of the former U.S. Customs Service.  These duties cover a range of over 500 statutes such as drug and human trafficking, money laundering, computer crimes, the child pornography trade, export control offenses, arms trafficking, and art crimes.  They are also cross-trained to supplement the dignitary protection functions of the Secret Service, to be mustered for special events like large UN meetings and presidential inaugurations.  HSI maintains field offices throughout the U.S. and has agents assigned to our overseas embassies and some consulates.

The National Programs and Protection Directorate of DHS has as its sole law enforcement unit the Federal Protective Service (FPS).  They are often seen riding around in vehicles with the DHS logo and the word “Police” on them.  Wrongly depicted as a national police force for all federal and state laws, the FPS is a small agency, thinly spread across America.  It employs about 1,000 officers and criminal investigators whose only functions are the protection of federally owned or leased property, and the people within them, if that property is not guarded by a separate agency (e.g., the Pentagon Police).  FPS sworn personnel have very limited on-duty authority and cannot enforce state laws, nor federal laws off-property, unless directly connected with their facilities protection mission.

Joe Arpaio Facing Contempt Charges Over Racial Profiling

A familiar DHS law enforcement agency is the United States Secret Service (USSS), which protects the president, vice president, and visiting heads of state or government.  Established by President Lincoln in 1865 to fight rampant currency counterfeiting, after President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, it was directed by Congress to provide presidential security.  Subsequent legislation gave it multi-faceted dignitary protection duties.  Today, beyond this vital work, the many field offices of the USSS are charged with investigating crimes like financial institution fraud, counterfeiting, credit card fraud, and money laundering.  It is also the primary provider of security at National Security Special Events such as the Super Bowl, in partnership with the FBI.

The USSS has about 3,500 special agents in the US and overseas offices and deploys 1,500 Uniformed Division officers to protect the White House Complex, vice-presidential residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory, and the perimeters of certain diplomatic missions in Washington, D.C.  Specially trained members of the Uniformed Division also travel with the president and other protectees as part of counter-assault teams, and can be seen in motorcades, sitting in SUVs with wide open tailgates.  Supporting USSS sworn personnel are about 2,000 civilian technicians, skilled in a variety of fields.  Interestingly the badge carried by Secret Service agents and officers does NOT identify it as being part of the DHS, which is unique among the department’s law enforcement agencies.

The DHS is not, as many fear, a monolithic force that could take over policing the United States at the president’s whim.  Rather it is a bureaucracy that cobbles together six law enforcement agencies, a division tasked with responding to disasters, and a jumble of intelligence units, with the ostensible purpose of coordinating all domestic national security under one roof.  Unfortunately DHS has become a bureaucracy replete with waste, fraud, incompetence and lack of transparency, with only limited jurisdiction over homeland security.  In this writer’s opinion, the DHS should be disbanded, its law enforcement agencies placed in cabinet departments most closely related to their specific duties, CBP and ICE consolidated into a single border agency under the Justice Department, FEMA returned to independent status, and DHS intelligence functions transferred to the FBI, which is the principal domestic security agency of the United States.  Such a move could save billions of tax dollars every year currently wasted by DHS apparatchik, streamline delivery of services to the public, and go a long way toward making America safer from the threats to our domestic tranquility that have emerged in the 21st century.

Feature image: By Geraldshields11 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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Martin Schwartz
About Martin Schwartz 13 Articles
Martin Schwartz was a N.Y. police officer, a U.S. Treasury Special Agent (criminal investigator) attached to the U.S. Customs Service, an assistant district attorney in NYC, a special assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) and a special counsel to the U.S. Department of Justice. He is now a writer with prior published work in the N.Y. Times, U.S. News & World Report, U.S.A. Today and Newsday, and a consultant to law enforcement.
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