Biden: Department of Homeland Security 'As Important As It’s Ever Been'

Maybe in the sense that it's never been important. But as DHS turns 20, the administration is signaling that the post-9/11 institution is here to stay

Biden: Department of Homeland Security 'As Important As It’s Ever Been'
A pre-DHS visa stamp. Via Wikimedia Commons

Edited by Sam Thielman

I'M GOING TO BE TRAVELING early next week—D.C., come see me talk about Iraq on Tuesday afternoon with Francis Fukuyama—and then I've got to work on some stuff I can't talk about yet. All that has me facing the idea of going more than a week without a newsletter, and I dislike that idea. So let's do some blogging.

FOR THE DEPARTMENT of Homeland Security’s 20th birthday, immigration and civil rights activists, some using the #DHS20 hashtag, protested the post-9/11 security leviathan in D.C.; Columbus and Savannah in Georgia; Miramar, Florida; and Denver, Colorado. The Defund Hate coalition put out this statement:

Twenty years is too long to keep making the same mistakes. This week, communities across the country are gathering to reflect on ICE and CBP’s impact and share stories of loved ones currently detained and who have been harmed or killed by the deportation agencies. Budgets are moral documents that should reflect our shared values of dignity, respect, and unity, and we collectively demand the federal government prioritize community needs in budget proposals and negotiations for Fiscal Year 2024.
Recent victories to end immigration detention contracts in California and Pennsylvania demonstrate a growing consensus to close detention centers that President Biden must continue building on as more contracts lapse this year.
The President and Congress must also redirect billions of taxpayer dollars we currently spend on DHS to support communities through education, housing, healthcare, public transportation, reparations, and other investments that allow us to live dignified and full lives together.

Meanwhile, at Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Central Louisiana Processing Center in Jena, an estimated 300 people in ICE cages are on hunger strike. "Detained folks at the Central Louisiana ICE Processing Center are tired of the harrowing conditions inside, and have decided to participate in a hunger strike to demand an immediate improvement to the rampant neglect in this facility. Individuals deserve access to clean facilities that do not compromise their mental or physical health,” Luba Cortes, Immigrant Defense Coordinator at Make the Road New York, explained in a prepared statement.

They may be in for worse. A lawsuit in California accuses ICE and the private-prisons giant  GEO Group—which, sure enough, runs the Central Louisiana Processing Centerof retaliation against hunger strikers. The lawsuit accuses the agency and its contractor of "taking away [detainee] yard time, family visitation and other recreational activities, and by threatening them with solitary confinement," according to KQED.  In 2018, I interviewed Yesica, an migrant detained at a different ICE detention facility run by GEO Group. She worked in the kitchens for $3 a day. GEO Group, clearly able to control its labor costs, expected to make $2.3 billion that year. I asked Yesica what life was like inside. "It's inhumane. It's like a torture chamber," she said.

On Wednesday, however, President Biden visited DHS' headquarters with a different message.

"You know, when we voted to set you all up, no one ever thought it’d be over 260,000 people," said Biden (and weirdly, because everyone knew DHS was going to comprise an absolute slew of federal employees; worker protections for the mega-agency was the subject of my very first TNR story way back in 2002, but that's not the point). "No one thought it would take—but you’ve done an incredible job." Sure, it's normal for a president to give a pep talk to a federal agency, but the job DHS actually does is, I would contend, not incredible, but bad.

Anyway, Biden narrated 9/11 for a bit before reaching a weird crescendo.

But even in the darkness, there still should be the light.  Don’t be afraid.  Fight back, not let the terrorists define us or fundamentally change our way of life, but to stand up—to stand up to fear and to make—and to make sure that Americans can still live their lives and dream their dreams.
That’s what all of you represent, from my perspective: Let Americans live their lives and still dream their dreams.

You could be forgiven for thinking here that the Department of Homeland Security has saved people from terrorism. Never once has that ever happened. Under the banner of that potentially happening, however, the actually-existing Department of Homeland Security militarized what used to be called the already-bad Immigration and Naturalization Service, under the paradigm of "enforcement." Democrats took the lead in doing this—George W. Bush resisted the idea at first—as their first real post-9/11 political initiative. Chapter 3 of REIGN OF TERROR begins with this story.

Biden's ode to not letting the terrorists "fundamentally change our way of life" tastes bitter in the context of praising one of the institutions created after 9/11. Readers of The End of The Myth by Greg Grandin or All-American Nativism by Daniel Denvir recognize that DHS is hardly a fundamental departure from the American Way, even if that's not the point Biden intends. But you also don't need 20 years of distance to recognize that DHS represented a turn of the historical ratchet.

It happened so recently that it really ought not to seem permanent. But Biden isn't out to abolish DHS and scatter its remaining legitimate functions to agencies outside the Security State. (I suppose cybersecurity has to stay within.) "The work of DHS is as important—as important as it’s ever been. I would argue it’s even more important than it’s been up till now," he told the DHS workforce. Again, in one sense, sure, because it's never been important; but that's not a guide to what's happening here.

I remember doing a story shortly before Biden's inauguration about how he wouldn't commit to knocking down The Wall. It turned out to be both an accurate bellwether and a sad testament to the durability of 9/11 politics, which have yielded an entrenched, state-generated market. Actual people's lives are now weighed in the balance against DHS contractors’ livelihoods.

More on DHS, including what I think is a never-before-seen document now in my possession, once I have the bandwidth.

THE POGROM against the Palestinian town of Hawara deserves more journalism than I can devote to it at the moment. Read Orly Noy's piece in +972, "The Pogrom Is The Point."

Netanyahu and Herzog unwittingly admit that collective punishment of Palestinians is already on the agenda of Israeli law enforcement authorities, yet for the sake of some social order, it ought to be the army, not civilians, who carry it out. In other words, when Netanyahu demands that the settlers let soldiers “do their job,” he is actually telling them to “let the IDF do the job for you.”
For above all the horrific legislation that this government will pass, the most important law in the Israeli books—which defines its identity and dictates its policy—is the law of Palestinian elimination. For this far-right government, this settler-colonial logic is a divine commandment; for the military, it is an operational duty.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezazel Smotrich is slated to speak to a Washington D.C. audience later this month. Ha'aretz reports that Smotrich reacted to the Hawara pogrom by saying, "The village of Hawara needs to be wiped out. I think that the State of Israel needs to do that—not, God forbid, private individuals." State Department spokesperson Ned Price called Smotrich's comments "irresponsible," "repugnant," "disgusting" and an "incitement to violence."

Beth Miller, the political director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action, released the following statement:

“It is time for the Biden administration to end its hollow words of concern and condemnation and to start taking action. Bezalel Smotrich, an Israeli government official with sweeping power over the occupied West Bank, is publicly and unabashedly inciting genocide and supporting settler pogroms. If Biden fails to take action at this moment, the U.S. will be fully complicit in the violence that comes next.”

IT'S BEEN ELEVEN MONTHS since the IPCC report that said we're 30 months away from the beginning of extinction. How's everyone's last eleven months been? Ready for the next 19?

COOL-GUY JOURNALISTS Jack Crosbie and Evan Hill have a podcast called Schlock and Awe where they survey the cinematic canon of the 9/11 era. They had me on to talk about what I consider to be the movie that the 24 series should have led into: Zero Dark Thirty. It's a movie I never want to watch again. And I don't think I'll ever be able to escape it!

DANIEL ELLSBERG, the whistleblower who revealed the Pentagon Papers and one of the most consequential Americans of the Cold War, has terminal cancer. I'll hold off on writing something until I can do so thoughtfully, but Secrets is a life-changing book. It was recently my honor to share a panel with Ellsberg in defense of the drone whistleblower Daniel Hale. [King that he is, Ellsberg used the opportunity of his newsmaking cancer diagnosis to demand the U.S. commit to a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons and to agitate for disarmament. He posted an eloquent letter to Twitter on the topic.—Sam.]

A GUIDE FOR THE NEXT COUPLE WEEKS OF THIS NEWSLETTER. There's going to be a fair amount of Iraq Invasion 20th Anniversary Coverage on here, notwithstanding everything I've said about the lameness of anniversary journalism. Sometime this month, Rolling Stone will publish a really, really long essay of mine about it, and I'm very flattered that I get to be someone who writes the 20th Anniversary of The Iraq Invasion piece for Rolling Stone. As well, my first Nation column is also about this, from an angle that makes more sense for The Nation than for Rolling Stone. At the end of March, Roy Scranton put together a symposium on the war's legacy at Notre Dame. I'll be on a March 30 panel with Andrew Bacevich, Jane Arraf, and Rutgers' own Omar Dewachi. I expect to write FOREVER WARS editions that say more about what I'm trying to say with all these retrospectives—especially because I may not have so much scheduling ability to discuss or report on other stuff; but because this needs to be a season of reflection. If I overdo it, maybe it's because we as a country have underdone it, by which I mean: never remotely acted in a fashion consistent to redressing the enormity of the invasion.