As Donald Trump moves to remake the Department of Homeland Security into an agency that will carry out his most extremist (and, often, illegal) orders, from military deployments on the southern border to the construction of detention camps for refugees to potentially closing the southern border completely, Carrie Cordero and Garrett Graff write that Homeland Security’s “unique history,” compared to the other federal agencies, renders it far more pliable to Trump’s white nationalist whims.
Trump’s new institutional target has few of the antibodies that allowed the Justice Department to resist his worst impulses. A young and immature department patched together after the 9/11 attacks, DHS is ripe for abuse by a would-be authoritarian—it has fewer institutional norms of behavior, less organizational DNA rooted in the rule of law, a comparatively high number of political appointees and a workforce and union base uniquely sympathetic to the president’s goals. These institutional susceptibilities should be particularly concerning for anyone paying attention to the rule of law under Trump.
This has already been demonstrated in the department’s willingness to take extremist actions toward asylum-seekers on Trump’s behalf, from leaving lines of refugees stranded at the border while the agency slow-walks applications to “zero tolerance” policies enforcing family separation (with little to no plans made for reunification afterwards). What is left largely unspoken, in the descriptions of the agency’s nasty beginnings and perennial problems with corruption, criminality, and insufficient training, is the extreme racism that has pervaded the Border Patrol for decades. This is not an unknown quantity; there is a reason that the border agents’ union embraced Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, and it was not for his thoughts on corporate tax rates.
But another factor here is that Homeland Security is not alone in its eagerness to come up with rationales for harming asylum seekers in accordance to White House wishes.
Then-attorney general Jeff Sessions was an architect of the zero tolerance policy that Homeland Security administrators jumped to implement. New Department of Justice head Bill Barr wasted little time putting forth a new version of the policy, ordering immigration judges to deny bail to asylum seekers, thereby allowing the government to hold those refugees in detention indefinitely.
So pointing out that the already Orwellian-named Department of Homeland Security is uniquely predisposed when it comes to implementing potentially illegal or unconstitutional orders from the White House may be too rosy a view. The Justice Department itself is attempting to implement Trump’s white nationalist policies, and has worked hand-in-hand with the White House to come up with a series of legal fig leafs to justify horrific new cruelties. It is not just one agency that is falling to Trump’s white nationalist agenda: the whole of government is being bent toward those policies. Meanwhile, even the most supposedly “moderate” Republicans in the House and Senate continue to do their best to ensure those same policies are not reined in. This is a government-wide crisis.