The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has seen its influence and power expand under President Trump, whose efforts to bolster border security and crack down on illegal immigration have run through the youngest federal department.
Homeland Security, established just 15 years ago after the Sept. 11 attacks, has enjoyed greater visibility and influence as Trump has pledged to establish “law and order” and build a wall at the southern border.
The department has been given the lead on implementing Trump’s most controversial and prominent policy moves, including the president’s executive orders barring certain travelers from entering the country.
Homeland Security agents have also cracked down on illegal immigration and so-called sanctuary cities, arresting nearly 500 undocumented immigrants in areas refusing to comply with Trump’s deportation efforts last month.
Trump’s first Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, is now the White House chief of staff, while Kelly’s deputy, Kirstjen Nielsen, has been nominated to succeed him at DHS.
Former department officials in both parties say it’s no surprise that Homeland Security’s power has grown under Trump, but they see it as remarkable nonetheless.
“The administration’s priorities overlap with the department’s missions pretty aggressively,” said Stewart Verdery, a former DHS assistant secretary of policy during the George W. Bush administration.
“It should be no surprise that DHS is front and center of his priorities, and the fact that Kelly has switched jobs now kind of doubles down on that.”
Kelly, a former commander of U.S. Southern Command and a crusader against illegal drug trafficking, is now a key member of Trump’s inner circle at the White House. Michael Chertoff, a former Homeland Security secretary under George W. Bush, said this naturally should give his former department added insight and clout.
“You now have somebody in a critical job in the White House who really understands Homeland Security from the inside out and not just from the outside in,” he said. “I think from DHS’s standpoint, it’s very good to have someone who had been secretary in the position that John Kelly is in the White House.”
Trump has sought to bolster resources for Homeland Security, particularly for its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, while signaling the need for deep cuts at other agencies and departments. Overall, Trump’s budget proposal boosted Homeland Security funding by $2.8 billion, which included funds for the border wall as well as millions to hire more CBP and ICE officers.
Critics say that the expansion of Homeland Security’s power has come at the expense of other agencies, including the State Department, which saw its budget gutted by a third in Trump’s proposal.
“The State Department has been basically castrated,” said Todd Rosenblum, who served as DHS deputy undersecretary during the Obama administration. “A lot of the issues that State would normally be handling on immigration assessments in terms of overseas issues and how much they impact U.S. foreign policy, that seems to be really pushed aside with this great emphasis just on the security side of that equation.”
While deportations increased at the start of the Obama administration, the last president focused efforts on undocumented immigrants who had committed other crimes, not those who had entered the country illegally purely for economic reasons.
“I think he viewed the DHS role as one of calibrating, getting to a place where we acknowledge, accept and absorb the immigrants into the country, those who are here illegally, sort of resolve the issue,” Rosenblum said.
The Trump administration considered moving State’s bureau of Consular Affairs and its bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration to Homeland Security. However, a State Department official recently told Congress that the move was no longer under consideration, amid mounting opposition to the department’s reorganization proposals on Capitol Hill.
The State Department was also seen as having more pull under the Obama administration, spearheading negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal and other international pacts.
Rosenblum said DHS’s gains in power have largely come at the expense of State.