Should Homeland Security be broken up?

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Speed read

What's happening: The phrase "Abolish ICE" has become a common refrain among progressives who oppose the raids, migrant detention and other measures enacted in recent months by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took the idea a step further in a conversation with the New Yorker on Friday, saying that she would favor breaking up the entire Department of Homeland Security — a sprawling cabinet department that includes Border Protection, Immigration Services, FEMA, the TSA and the Coast Guard.

DHS was created in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. It brought together 22 agencies with varying counterterrorism functions from across the government into a new cabinet department. Then-President George W. Bush said DHS would establish a "comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks."

Ocasio-Cortez later expanded on her comments, saying politicians at the time were "setting up a ticking time bomb for civil liberties erosion & abuse of power" and breaking up the agency would reset one of Though she didn't provide specifics, most plans for breaking up DHS involve returning the various agencies to their original departments, rather than eliminating them entirely.

Why there's debate: Advocates for breaking up DHS say its creation was a mistake spurred by reactionary fear after 9/11. Lawmakers at the time, they argue, sacrificed civil liberties for a false promise of safety.

Others advocate for splitting the department as a practicality, saying it is too big and the duties of its agencies are too broad for one department to handle. These critics argue lack of oversight has allowed for abuses such as ICE's "extrajudicial" raids and an alleged culture of racism within Border Patrol. They also cite evidence of the department's ineffectiveness, such as the poor response to Hurricane Katrina and failure to protect voting systems from Russian hacking.

Defenders of DHS say it has largely been effective in its primary purpose of preventing another major terror attack on U.S. soil. They also argue that critics are using the debate over one part of the department's duties, immigration enforcement, to attack DHS as a whole.

What's next: Though criticism of DHS has been prevalent since the department’s inception, the political will to dismantle it is still relatively weak. Advocates for reforming Bush-era security measures have instead put their weight behind reforming the Patriot Act and challenging the military force authorization that led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


The department is a haphazard collection of agencies with no unified mission

"The department was thrown together during George W. Bush's administration, forged in fear in the aftermath of 9/11. Today, it's a hodgepodge of diverse agencies — including the TSA, FEMA, ICE and many more — often with conflicting missions, all of which have been subordinated beneath Trump's anti-immigrant agenda." — David M. Perry, CNN

DHS has proved to be ineffective

"The abysmal track record of DHS's various divisions — many of which have very different missions from each other — suggest that the department should be broken up altogether." — Christian Britschgi, Reason

DHS is critical for protecting America's safety

"Does [Ocasio-Cortez] really want us to go back to the age in ... which you can go and board an airplane carrying a box cutter or a bomb? Does she really want our borders to be unprotected? Does she really want to abolish the customs? Does she want to get rid of the Secret Service? The Department of Homeland Security has kept us safe." — former Bush administration official Karl Rove on Fox News

Creating the department was an irrational decision made in the wake of a national tragedy

"DHS, like the Patriot Act, was a panicked & xenophobic reactionary response to 9/11." — Abraham Gutman, Philadelphia Inquirer opinion writer

Breaking up DHS would jeopardize national security

"Already in favor of abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, this week she said she’s open to shutting down the entire Department of Homeland Security. Why stop there? I’m guessing she doesn’t like the Department of Defense, either." — Matthew Continetti, National Review

The department is fundamentally broken

"If these issues were found in only one part of DHS and its subsidiary agencies, there might be an option for reform. But the problem is both cultural and systemic. The department will always be the hastily assembled product of a dark, paranoid moment in American history. It also helps give permanence to that moment, preventing the country from moving beyond the post-9/11 era." — Matt Ford, New Republic

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