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The 'Wall of Moms' group protesters marches at the nightly protest in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 21, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. The federal police response to the ongoing protests against racial inequality has been criticized by city and state elected officials. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Washington Post)

Citing 'Years of Chaos and Impunity,' ACLU Calls for Breakup of Department of Homeland Security

"We have to remove the loaded weapon that sits on the proverbial coffee table in the Oval Office."

Lisa Newcomb

After years of challenging the actions and authority of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the ACLU Monday called for Congress to dismantle the agency and break it into smaller parts.

"Its dysfunction is one of the Beltway's worst kept secrets," Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, wrote in an op-ed. "DHS' overbroad mandate and unchecked powers have turned it into a tinderbox, now ignited by a president willing to trample on the constitutional limits of presidential powers."

"The very premise of a 'homeland security' bureaucracy is chilling and ought to be questioned," Romero wrote in USA Today. Noting that DHS is an "ineffective superagency" composed of 22 different agencies, Romero argued that breaking up the department would "allow for more effective oversight, accountability, and public transparency."

This is not the first time DHS or agencies under its umbrella, including the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), have been targeted by activists and politicians as unwieldy bastions of authoritarian power, but calls for oversight have increased since President Donald Trump took office in 2017.
 
"Under President Trump, ICE appears to have taken the gloves off," the Brennan Center for Justice reported in 2018, following increased immigrant deportations under the Trump administration's watch, which resulted a nationwide movement to abolish the agency.
 
ICE continues to come under fire for mismanagement and cruelty of its immigrant detention facilities. Last week a federal judge ordered ICE to obtain and implement rapid Covid-19 testing in a detention center California, following a viral outbreak there and evidence of blatant refusal to implement screening and social distancing measures for detainees who are positive for Covid-19.
 
Romero pointed to more recent actions in addition to those since the beginning of Trump's reign, and highlighted reports of federal officers pulling Black Lives Matter protesters into unmarked vehicles as recently as July.
 
"Now, of course, we know that DHS has surveilled Black Lives Matter activist circles; descended into mosques and community centers to infiltrate Muslim communities; shot and killed foreign nationals across the border; and monitored protests using fusion center intelligence sharing hubs," Romero wrote. He also pointed to current and former high-ranking government officials who have also called out DHS for overreach.
 
"It would be a cold day in hell before I would consent or agree to the unsolicited, uninvited intervention in any of my cities," Tom Ridge, who served as the first U.S. secretary of homeland security, told Pittsburgh news outlet KDKA last month, following news of federal agents essentially kidnapping protesters in Portland, Oregon. "I certainly don't favor that kind of action, and certainly don't think DHS was designed for that purpose to start with."
 
In an op-ed published by The Washington Post last month, Barbara Boxer, a former Democratic U.S. representative and senator from California, lamented voting to form DHS following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
 
"I never thought that the Department of Homeland Security would be used against our own people," Boxer wrote, referring to the deployment of federal agents in Portland. "I never envisioned a dictatorial president, a tyrannical president, a desperate president."
 
But Trump seems only to have been emboldened by increased calls of authoritarianism carried out by DHS. Less than an hour before the ACLU announced their call to dismantle the department, the president tweeted that the National Guard is "ready to act immediately" to secure a federal courthouse in Portland, where protests over police brutality and systemic racism continue. 

"Years of chaos and impunity make a clear case for the dismantling of DHS," Romero wrote. "President Trump's use of DHS as his personal militia should be enough to start a meaningful bipartisan debate about DHS' future."

"If there is one thing we have learned from the authoritarianism on display in Portland, it's that we have to remove the loaded weapon that sits on the proverbial coffee table in the Oval Office," he concluded.


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