The Department of Homeland Security operates under a bit of a shadow, which makes talking about the recent violence in Portland, Oregon, difficult. The tactics the government has been using in this second wave of violence against anti-racist, anti–police brutality protesters have employed overwhelming force. They’ve also been obfuscatory: The officers, reportedly from DHS, are nameless and faceless, retreating and reappearing inside a kind of mist. Some journalists have called them “agents” or “officers.” Others call them “troops,” raising this question of whether we’re at war, and if so, with whom. DHS was ostensibly built to protect the country from “terrorists.” But its mission was always expansive. And it’s bringing the war home.
On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Jonathan Blitzer, who covers homeland security for the New Yorker, about the sad inevitability of what’s happening in Portland. As he told me, “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to refer to some of these groups as paramilitary forces.” Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: You say that what’s happening now is kind of written into the DNA of the Department of Homeland Security. What do you mean by that?
Jonathan Blitzer: The thing that the Department of Homeland Security did that was so novel and so dangerous was combining all of the resources of immigration enforcement. It expanded them. It beefed them up and broadened the authority of the government to do this enforcement, all under the pretense of national security. And so you had the marriage of immigration enforcement and national security. With the rhetoric around national security that grew out of 9/11, that was a time that really empowered law enforcement to take liberties that I think we can all agree now were quite problematic. At the time, given what the apparent threat seemed to be to the country, that was a pretext that neither Democrats nor Republicans felt comfortable questioning. Now, over the years, what you see is every year the Department of Homeland Security’s budget getting bigger.
One of the most striking things to see was how in the early days of the creation of the department, the agencies tasked with enforcing immigration law—Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol—Customs and Border Protection—every year asked for more money and were given a lot more money. A kind of weird feedback loop started to take root in which it didn’t matter how much these agencies did in the course of their work—there was always more to be done. And Congress is always only too eager to give them the resources to do it.
When you say they kept getting more money, how much? Compared with the budget of, like, the FBI?
The three agencies inside DHS that take up 40 percent of its budget are ICE, CBP, and this esoteric-sounding organization that basically supplies biometric information to the two other agencies as part of its enforcement remit. You’re looking at $26 billion a year, and that is a larger sum than every other federal law enforcement body in the United States combined. That’s bigger than the FBI budget, the U.S. Marshals budget, the DEA budget, the ATF budget. All of those rolled up together, the cost is still smaller than that of three agencies that make up a fraction of DHS.
I think one reason why, on the whole, smart people who were following the news didn’t see this coming or developing over the years is because for the most part, these agencies under DHS are policing and cracking down on immigrants and generally people at the border. So it’s not something that is in plain view for most Americans. One of the reasons why I say what we’re seeing now on the streets of Portland is written into the DNA of the department is that a lot of the tactics that are so shocking to us to see so clearly on the streets of American cities—this is how DHS has operated on the margins when policing immigrants and the border for decades. And because there has been so little oversight and accountability, there’s really never been a broad reckoning with what DHS does.
In the early days of the creation of DHS. There were teams at ICE that were created and tasked with arresting undocumented immigrants. And those teams were literally called fugitive operations, or Fug Ops, which already has a certain military ring to it. And the initial idea of fugitive operations was that they were going to go after people living in the U.S. who were undocumented but who had committed criminal offenses.
In the early years of the creation of DHS, you had the majority of arrests made by fugitive operations be of people who fit that criteria. But over time, as these fugitive operations teams got more and more money from Congress, leaders at the department realized, The only way we can justify to Congress asking for and getting more money is to give them further proof of all it is that we’re doing. What starts to happen in like 2006, 2007, is that these fugitive operations teams are tasked with making a certain number of arrests each year, quotas that have to fulfill. And now that they have to make this number of arrests to justify continued funding from Congress, the proportion of people they’re arresting who have committed crimes in the past starts to go down. And increasingly, what you see over this time is fugitive operations arresting people who don’t have criminal records. It’s that kind of mission creep that you can certainly see coming but was smothered in the politics of the moment. Fast forward a couple decades and you’re seeing it nakedly on the streets of an American city.
You’ve done some reporting on how we got to where we are right now with these DHS folks on the ground in Portland. Can you reconstruct that a little bit for me?
The officials I’ve spoken to over the years all expected the president to ramp up DHS activity in the lead-up to the elections, but I didn’t expect it to be this egregious this soon. What we’re seeing now arguably was only a matter of time.
The story of DHS over the past four years is a story of a relatively young department with massive and unprecedented resources increasingly coming under the thumb of the president’s political agenda. What the Trump administration has been all about from Day One is forcing the department to do exactly what the president wants from a political perspective, and that goes from demonizing immigrants to enforcing immigration laws in needlessly aggressive ways to doing increasingly inhumane things: separating families, wholesale policing of American cities. And I think for the most part, there has been some measure of pushback from inside the department against these over-the-top partisan directives from the White House. But over time, the people who have pushed back have either been forced out or resigned, they’ve been fired. And what you have now really—I can’t overstate this—you have the dregs.
The idea that DHS would go into Portland in the way that it has in the midst of an unprecedented national conversation about the need to reevaluate police force really makes you think that to a certain degree, whether consciously or unconsciously, it really seems like DHS wants to be a part of the conversation in which Americans are questioning police force and the need to fund police .
I really think at a certain point we just call it like it is. The current acting head of the department, Chad Wolf, first of all, technically isn’t even authorized to be exercising his authority right now because he’s only acting in the role, meaning he hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate. There’s a law on the books that basically says someone can only serve in an acting role in government for 210 days.
How long has he been serving?
He took over in November of 2019, so we’re well north of 210 days. Some of his top deputies are also unconfirmed. All of the leadership of the department right now consists of unconfirmed political appointees who have sworn fealty to the White House. So you have no one at really any position in leadership inside the department who’s exercising independence when it comes time to carry out these directives from the White House.
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