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10 years of Homeland Security: Three ways in which the immigration landcape has changed

A Border Patrol vehicle patrols the fence separating the cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora. The ranks of the U.S. Border patrol agents have grown exponentially since the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003.
A Border Patrol vehicle patrols the fence separating the cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora. The ranks of the U.S. Border patrol agents have grown exponentially since the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003.
Ted Robbins/NPR

The ten-year anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security last week came and went relatively quietly. But the changes in how immigration has been dealt with in United States since the creation of DHS have been anything but subtle.

DHS opened for business March 1, 2003, three months after then-president George W. Bush signed a bill calling for a new cabinet-level department in reaction to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

In the runup, the old Immigration and Naturalization Service was dismantled. That agency's effectiveness had been questioned after 9/11 when it was discovered that some of the hijackers were here on visas that shouldn't have been granted. Until then, the INS had been charged with overseeing virtually all aspects of immigration — from the issuance of green cards to deportations to securing the nation's borders.

Under Homeland Security, the immigration component was divided among three agencies: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees customs and the U.S. Border Patrol; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles work visas and naturalization; and the most high-profile of the three, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose roles include interior enforcement, investigations, and the detention and removal of immigrants.

DHS also absorbed several other entities, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but its influence has perhaps been mostly felt in the way U.S. immigration policies have evolved. In the post-Homeland Security era, immigration enforcement has become closely tied to national security, a marked difference from before.

It would take a while to list all of the ways in which the immigration landscape has changed since March 2003, but here are three related ones that stand out:

1) The most heavily fortified border ever

The militarized border as we known it today dates back to the Clinton administration, which brought additional fencing and Border Patrol agents to the San Diego area in the mid-1990s, pushing human smuggling traffic east. But as the Bush administration reacted to 9/11, the focus on the borders — mostly the southern one — shifted from keeping out immigrants to keeping out terrorists, and spending skyrocketed.

The U.S.-Mexico border is more highly fortified today than it has ever been. After the creation of DHS, measures such as the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, the 2006 Secure Fence Act and others pumped billions into boosting the ranks of the Border Patrol and adding border fencing and technology. 

In 2002, there were roughly 10,000 Border Patrol agents; by 2011, there were more than 21,000.  The Secure Fence Act authorized 700 miles of additional border fence, along with technology that includes unmanned aerial drones. The government has also spent tens of millions to mitigate environmental problems related to fence construction.

While some lawmakers are calling for more border security as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package, others point to a dramatic drop in illegal border crossing arrests as a sign of success. If anything, the southern border has become more difficult, more dangerous, and more expensive to cross than it was a decade ago.

2) Immigration policies tied to national security 

As an example, an excerpt from the Border Patrol's 2012-2016 strategic plan:

"The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against our Nation defined U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s national security mission: nothing less than preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States," reads a message from Border Patrol chief Michael Fisher. "The world has changed during the last decade, and so have the threats that we face every day."

The post-9/11 confluence of immigration and national security policies took place early on, before the creation of DHS. An early example is the now-dismantled National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, implemented in 2002. The system focused on non-citizen men from Muslim-majority countries, with the goal of collecting their fingerprints, photographs, and monitoring their whereabouts. At first there was a "special registration" component that required subjects to report to immigration officials for questioning. This part was suspended in 2003, but the program continued under DHS until 2011.

Other security-related immigration policies followed, most administered by ICE. Worksite enforcement took on a national security focus. One early ICE policy, for example, involved auditing federal contractors for immigration violations; another tactic involved prosecuting unauthorized workers for identify theft. A new focus was placed on tracking down and arresting immigrant "fugitives," often people who failed to appear for an immigration hearing or failed to comply with a deportation order.

The most well known of these post-DHS policies is Secure Communities, which began in 2008. That program, expanded by the Obama administration, allows the fingerprints of people booked by state and local cops to be shared with immigration officials; if they are here illegally, local authorities are directed to hold them for deportation. Its goal is to find and deport immigrants with criminal records, or deemed a security threat, although in practice the program has landed many non-offenders and low-level offenders in deportation.

Secure Communities has drawn resistance from some state and local officials; recently in California, the state attorney general directed local agencies that they needn't heed ICE requests for deportation holds.

3) Record deportations and immigrant detention

As immigration and national security became increasingly intertwined, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement took on a prominent role in identifying, detaining, and removing immigrants from the U.S., with and without criminal records.

ICE's budget for detention and removal has ballooned since the agency's creation a decade ago.  In 2005, the agency's custody appropriation was only $504 million; that had jumped to $1.6 billion by 2008. Today it's a little more than $2 billion. Much of this money goes to outside contractors, since only  a small number of the roughly 250 detention facilities around the country are federally-owned. In 2011, only about 13 percent of ICE detainees were held in handful of agency-owned detention centers. 

With the post-DHS enforcement policies came a growing number of people landing  in deportation. There are now upwards of 30,000 ICE detainees on any given day. About 84 percent of them are housed in either contracted facilities owned by private companies, or in state or local facilities where ICE rents space on contract. Some of these are also run by private companies, with the local jurisdiction acting as middleman. In turn, detention  contracts have become a lucrative business for the private prison industry.

Some of this could change as funding dries up. Since last week, ICE has been releasing detainees from facilities around the country, citing federal budget cuts as the reason.

As the Border Patrol strategic plan notes, the world has changed in the last decade, as has the U.S. immigration landscape post-DHS. The examples above are just a few, affecting not only immigrants and their families, but also business owners, travelers, border residents and others. It makes for a good discussion, so feel free to share your thoughts or experiences below.