Forget Janet Napolitano; Dismantle DHS

The appointment of Janet Napolitano to the top Homeland Security post has elicited a diverse number of reactions. In a New York Times article, some immigration hardliners are calling it a travesty, NumbersUSA thinks that President-elect Barack Obama could have done worse, while ‘liberals’ think that Napolitano represents a balanced and constructive view, given that she is in favor of a comprehensive immigration reform that legalizes 12 million undocumented migrants. Conservatives in Arizona are happy that finally power might shift towards them with the election of Jan Brewer to Governorship.

Few are questioning the rise of ‘immigration’ as a matter of national security to the point where debates over the chief post of Homeland Security now include major immigration groups. Is this a failure of the imagination, ignorance or just plain historical amnesia? Discourses surrounding the appointment of Napolitano simply serve as polemical devices to achieve political ends while doing nothing to actually address the epistemological and ontological flaws in the actual nature of the Department of Homeland Security.

Writing for the Washington Post, Edward Alden is one of the few mainstream and liberal commentators who comes close to hitting the nail on the head with this statement in ‘Close Minded on the Border:

Instead of continuing to embrace the massive flow of talent, energy and initiative that the rest of the world has long offered the United States, we launched an expensive, futile experiment to see whether we could seal our borders against the ills of the world, from terrorists to drugs to illegal migrants. This effort has betrayed both our ideals and our interests.

Yet, he notes that Janet Napolitano has a rare opportunity to set the nation back on track—to improve security without sacrificing American values and ideals.

On November 25, 2002, President Bush signed into law the Homeland Security Act of 2002 which created the Department of Homeland Security that effectively took over the INS (now CIS). This reorganization blurred the line between immigration policy and terrorism policy to the detriment of many immigrants in the United States – immigration policy became an issue of national security, widening the nexus of security concerns, and hence, granting more policing power to the State.

This incorporation of immigration as national security has far-reaching implications—apart from the fact that immigration is now treated as a security concern rather than an economic and cultural benefit, the dehumanization and scapegoating of undocumented immigrants has proliferated out of control. From local enforcement and state laws to election battles, the unnamed and othered ‘illegal immigrant’ is the big bad bogeyman against whom we need protection.

Under the DHS, the Constitution has taken a hit. Forget the Fourth Amendment; border agents can search laptops and other electronic devices without cause, without reasonable search and seizure standards. Forget the Fourteenth Amendment and equal protection of the laws; non-citizens suspected of violating immigration law can be jailed for months or even years without due process of law as they await deportation. Psychotropic drugs are given to detained immigrants awaiting deportation, raising questions about the Eight Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Ask DHS, what part of ILLEGAL don’t you understand?

‘Illegal’ is associated with criminal even though the majority of ‘out-of-status’ immigrants have committed no crimes (mere illegal presence is not a crime). Innocent children of undocumented immigrants are subject to hatred and insult by short-sighted spiteful nativists while some in Congress want to change the Constitution to strip children born here of their birthright citizenship. Even U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, detained and almost deported mistakenly, have not escaped the scathing effects of the increased militarization of immigration. And of course, ‘race’ serves as a proxy for criminality or wrong-doing—most of the citizens and legal permanent residents targeted by ICE have been disproportionately non-white and this has also trickled down from the DHS to local police enforcement of immigration. A blog reader comments:

My brother was working construction to make extra money. Police in Greenwood, Indiana came up to him, and asked him for his green card. He laughed, because he didn’t know he was serious. It got serious fast when he was pushed to the ground, and handcuffed. When his friends/coworkers told him he’s from Alaska and American, and that he had ID, they finally called off the additional policemen requested. I guess it is illegal to have dark skin in America.

What is Obama telling us by keeping the DHS and appointing a ‘border governor’ like Napolitano to the post: that ‘illegal immigrants’ are a national security problem requiring a ‘state of emergency?’ That we are (only) threatened as a country from unknown enemies across our borders? That a militaristic, get-tough approach to humanitarian disasters and attractive immigration innovation works best? That family-sponsored visa petitions, widowed-spouses of U.S. citizens, undocumented students, farm workers, American citizens who happen to be racial minorities, are a threat to the national security apparatus?

Coming to the actual ‘security’ problem faced by the United States:

Our perception of what and from whom we need to be secured is not based on the actual threats that exist, but on the threats that we are told to perceive by the state. Thus, terrorists, drugs, illegal immigrants, “Third World” dictators, rogue states, blacks, non-Christians, and the Other, are considered as threats to the national security apparatus, and consequently, as threats to the individual American. This state construction of threats pervades our minds, causing a trickle-down effect that encourages a culture of fear, where the only limit to the coming danger is our imagination. Lipschutz (2000, 44-45) concludes in After Authority: War, Peace, and Global Politics in the 21st Century, “the national security state is brought down to the level of the household, and each one arms itself against the security dilemma posed by its neighbor across the hedge of fence.”

In On Security, Ole Waever, a senior researcher at the Center for Peace and Conflict Research, notes that “in naming a certain development a security problem, the state can claim a special right, one that in the final instance, always be defined by the state and its elites” (1995, 55). This process is termed as “securitization,” which simply means treating an event or issue as a problem of national security rather than first questioning whether it should even be treated as a security issue. Such an act serves the interests of the state and its elites, starting with the discourse of security by the state, which constructs and perpetuates state identity and existence. Immigration policy under the DHS has hence undergone unwarranted securitization, serving the interest of the state (and private detention) apparatus.

Forgetting political theory for the moment, given the ineffectiveness (one need not look any further than FEMA and the current border fence woes), widespread criticism and lawsuits against the DHS, it is a wonder that more people are not writing about simply dismantling the agency. The DHS was dreamed into existence after 9-11, it can (and should) be legislated out of existence if we really want change we can believe in, change that restores some sort of integrity into the American system of justice, especially in regards to immigration policy.

Forget Napolitano. Dismantle the DHS.

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