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.
“Because State is so diminished at the table, it definitely has increased the place of DHS,” said Rosenblum, now a national security expert at the Atlantic Council.
Trump’s bond with Kelly has stood in stark contrast to his relationship with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has scuffled with the White House over appointments and has been publicly undermined by Trump for his strategy on North Korea.
Kelly’s influence with the president was cemented by Trump’s recent decision to nominate Nielsen, the retired Marine general’s deputy, to replace him at Homeland Security. The ties she has cultivated with both Trump and Kelly also likely guarantee that the department will maintain its standing in the new administration.
Nielsen is widely cheered in Republican circles for her experience, which includes prior service at Homeland Security.
Since its creation, the Homeland Security Department has evolved into a sprawling agency that must contend with increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks, threats from domestic terrorism and natural disasters. As threats have compounded, the department has seen its powers grow.
Homeland Security is not absent of challenges going forward.
Some critical positions remain open at the department, including the undersecretary that oversees the cybersecurity of federal civilian networks and critical infrastructure.
Indeed, the department has existed for three months without a permanent leader as successive hurricanes have challenged Homeland Security’s disaster response efforts.
“Are there issues? Yes. I think issues are really at the management level,” said James Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation who served on the Trump transition team. “They haven’t had their rollout of the senior political people and you really need those people to make those changes.”
Some also say that the new administration has been too focused on building “the wall” and has neglected less politically charged issues, including long-term budget and operational plans.
“The reality is we just don’t have a long-term, specific plan that includes money and funding and staff,” said James Norton, a cybersecurity expert and former Bush-era DHS official. “At the end of the day, it’s all about funding and budgets.”
Still, former officials observe the department’s maturation through five successive secretaries and three presidential administrations, which they expect to continue as Nielsen takes on the top role.
“I think it has matured over time. I think each successive secretary has been able to mature the department,” Chertoff said. “I think that particularly in the area of cyber, DHS is taking a bigger and more operational role. I think it’s been progressing along.”