Building the Homeland Security State

Roberto Lovato

Lost in debates around immigration, as the United States enters its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, is any sense of the historical connection between immigration policy and increased government control—of citizens. Following a pattern established at the foundation of the republic, immigrants today are again being used to justify government responses the economic and political crises. Consider, for example, the establishment in November 2002 of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the largest, most important restructuring of the federal government since the end of World War II.1 The following March, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was dismantled and replaced with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency under the newly established DHS. ICE’s rapid expansion—16,500-plus employees and near $5 billion budget—quickly transformed it into DHS’s largest investigative component, accounting for more than one fifth of the multibillion-dollar DHS budget. ICE is also the second-largest investigative agency in the federal government, after the FBI, responsible for enforcing more than 400 statutes, and is arguably the most militarized federal entity after the Pentagon.2 Not long after its inception, ICE began to wage what many advocates have called a “war on immigrants.”

Beginning in fall 2006, ICE launched a campaign of workplace and home raids aimed at “getting tough on immigrants.” Thousands of heavily armed ICE agents were deployed in these high-profile raids designed, we were told, to find and deport undocumented immigrants. Since 2006, hundreds of thousands of immigrants have been detained in jails that constitute the fastest-growing part of the prison system in the country. The speed with which the militarization of migration policy took place left many questions. Why, for example, did the Bush administration move the citizenship-processing and immigration-enforcement functions of government from the more domestic, policing-oriented Department of Justice to the more militarized, anti-terrorist bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security? Most explanations view this transfer, and the relentless pursuit of undocumented immigrants that it enabled, as a response to the continuing pressures of angry, mostly white, citizens. Widespread fear and xenophobia following the September 11 attacks, together with the “anti-immigrant climate” fostered thereafter by civic groups like the Minutemen, Republican politicos, and media personalities like CNN’s Lou Dobbs, we are told, has led directly to the massive new government bureaucracy for policing immigrants. The Washington Post, for example, told us in 2006 that the rise of the Minutemen and their armed citizen patrols along the U.S.-Mexico border was “credited with helping to ignite the debate that has dominated Washington in recent months.”3

But while many can believe that there were ulterior motives behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, few consider that there are non-immigration-related motives behind ICE’s Al Qaeda-ization of immigrants and immigration policy: building a domestic security apparatus, one made possible by multibillion-dollar contracts to military-industrial companies like Boeing, General Electric, and Halliburton for “virtual” border walls, migrant detention centers, drones, ground-based sensors, and other surveillance technology for use in the Arizona desert that was originally designed for Middle Eastern war zones. Not to mention the de facto militarization of immigration policy through the deployment of 6,000 additional National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border; thousands of raids across the country; and the passage of hundreds of punitive, anti-migrant state and federal laws like the Military Commissions Act, which denies the habeas corpus rights of even legal residents who are suspected of providing “material support” to terrorist groups.4

This is not to say that public pressure from the anti-immigrant right played no role in the Bush administration’s immigrant crackdown. And another interpretation of the increased repression against immigrants is articulated by journalist David Bacon, who posits that the crackdown is purposefully meant to trigger an immigrant-labor shortage, which will eventually enable the government to establish the migration policy it’s been pushing for all along: a temporary guest-worker program.5 While that is surely part of the government’s response, such conclusions fail to explain why the government needs to deploy its military might to deal with gardeners, maids, and meatpackers. Such explanations fail to consider how reasons of state, the logic of government, figure heavily in the Bush administration’s historic and massive government restructuring. By framing such militaristic measures as targeting noncitizen immigrants makes it easier for citizens to swallow the increased domestic militarism inherent in increasing numbers of uniformed men and women with guns in their midst. As David Cole put it in his Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism (The New Press, 2005): “What we are willing to allow our government to do to immigrants today creates a template for how it will treat citizens tomorrow.” Constant reports of raids on the homes of the undocumented immigrants normalize the idea of government intrusion into the homes of legal residents.

In order to understand how and why ICE now constitutes an important part of the ascendant national security bureaucracy, we must first look at the intimate relationship between national security policy and homeland security policy. In July 2002, the Bush administration introduced its “National Strategy for Homeland Security,” a document that outlines how to “mobilize and organize our Nation to secure the U.S. homeland from terrorist attacks.” Two months later, the administration released the more geopolitically focused “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” whose purpose is to “help make the world not just safer but better.” September 11 provided the impetus to create a bureaucratic and policy environment dominated by security imperatives laid out in two of these documents, two of the most definitive of our time, which outline strategies that “together take precedence over all other national strategies, programs, and plans”—including immigration policy, which receives considerable attention, especially in the section on homeland security strategy.

By placing other government functions under the purview of the national security imperatives laid out in the two documents, the Bush administration enabled and deepened the militarization of government bureaucracies like ICE. At the same time, immigrants provided the Bush administration a way to facilitate the transfer of public wealth to military-industrial contractors through government contracts in a kind of Homeland Security Keynesianism. The role of the private sector is also made explicit on a DHS webpage called “Information Sharing and Analysis,” which says that the department “is responsible for assessing the nation’s vulnerabilities” and that “the private sector is central to this task.”

Such dealings are provided for in the two Homeland Security strategy papers, which call for DHS to “establish a national laboratory for homeland security” that solicits “independent and private analysis for science and technology research.” This materialized in ICE’s budget, which has resources for research and development of technologies for surveilling, capturing, detaining, and generally combating what politicos and Minutemen alike paint as the Malthusian monster of immigration. Immigrants not only justify but make possible such massive state expenditures—at great human cost.

*

Shortly after the September 11 attacks and the creation of DHS, the Bush administration used immigrants and fear of outsiders to tighten border restrictions, pass repressive laws, and increase budgets to put more drones, weapons, and troops inside the country. Government actions since 9/11 point clearly to how the U.S. government has set up a new Pentagon-like bureaucracy to fight a new kind of protracted domestic war against a new kind of domestic enemy, undocumented immigrants.

In the process of restructuring the immigration bureaucracy, national security concerns regarding threats from external terrorist enemies got mixed in with domestic concerns about immigrant “invaders” denounced by a growing galaxy of anti-immigrant interests. This should not have come as a surprise: In times of heightened (and often exaggerated) fears about national security, immigration and immigrants are no longer just wedge issues in electoral politics; they transform into dangerous others who fill the need for new domestic enemies. Immigrants can provide the rationale for expanding the government policing bureaucracy in times of political crisis, economic distress, and major geopolitical shifts. At a time when less than 18% of the U.S. population believes it is living the American Dream, according to one poll, the state needs many reasons to reassert control over the populace by putting more gun-wielding government agents among the citizenry.6

A brief look at historical precedents for this kind of government anti-immigrant action yields the conclusion that this instrumentalizing of immigrants to build up government policing and military capabilities is, in fact, a standard practice of the art of statecraft. The historical record provides ample evidence of how national security experts, politicians, elected officials, bureaucrats and other managers of the state have used immigrants and anti-immigrant sentiments and policies as a way of normalizing and advancing militarization within the borders of the United States.

Long before the Patriot Act, DHS, and ICE, policies linking immigrants to the security of the country formed an important part of U.S. statecraft. Like many of the newly established countries suffering some of the political and economic shocks of economic and political modernization in the late 18th century, the fledgling United States and its leaders needed to simultaneously consolidate the nation-state established constitutionally in 1787 while also maneuvering for a position on a global map dominated by the warring powers of France and England. Central to accomplishing this were immigrants, who provided both a means of rallying and aligning segments of the populace while also legitimating massive expenditures toward the construction of the militarized bureaucracies meant to defend against domestic threats to “national” security, threats that linked external enemies, real and perceived. In response to the devastating effects of economic transformations, thousands of French, German, Irish, and other immigrants led uprisings like the Whiskey Rebellion and Shay’s Rebellion, which were viewed as threats by elites, especially the Federalists.

In the face of both popular unrest and competition for political power, and in an effort to consolidate the state and the globally oriented mercantile and pre-industrial capitalist economy, Alexander Hamilton and then president John Adams did what has, since their time, become a standard operating procedure in the art of U.S. statecraft: build the state and insert its control apparatus in the larger populace by scapegoating immigrants as threats to national security. The period before and after the passage of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, which gave Adams, the father of the national security state, unprecedented powers. Fearful of Jacobinism’s influence, Adams secured the authority to unilaterally deport any immigrant he deemed a threat to national security. According to historian John Morton Smith, the internal security program adopted by the Federalists during the Adams administration “was designed not only to deal with potential dangers from foreign invasion . . . but also to repress domestic political opposition.”7 In this context, immigrants became the domestic expression of the threat represented by the French Jacobins, the subversive threat of the early 19th century. Indeed, the modern use of the word terror first enters the language when Edmund Burke gazed across the English Channel and, in his Thoughts on the Prospect of a Regicide Peace (1796), used it to describe the actions of the Jacobin state. Burke’s conservative U.S. cousins then adopted the term and applied it to French-influenced immigrants and others considered subversive.

Another major buildup of the government policing apparatus took place during the Red Scare of 1919. The U.S. government faced several economic and political pressures, including the end of World War I, the demobilization of the army, returning troops, joblessness, depression, unemployment, and growing inflation. The precarious situation gave rise to increased elite fear of Jewish, Italian, and other immigrant workers in the era of the Bolshevik revolution and an increasingly powerful, and militant, labor movement. Socialists, Wobblies, and other activists staged 3,600 labor strikes involving 4 million workers, many of whom were led by and were immigrants. Government and big business had to watch as fully one-fifth of the manufacturing workforce staged actions.8 Massive organizing by Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association and race riots in northern cities further stoked elite fears.

Like other national governments of the period—and in contrast to today’s era of outsourcing—the United States had begun intensifying the centralization of functions formerly carried out by the private sector, including keeping labor and other dissidents in check. In the words of Regin Schmidt, author of The FBI and the Origins of Anti-Communism in the United States (Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000): “In response to social problems caused by industrialization, urbanization and immigration and the potential political threats to the existing order posed by the Socialist Party, the IWW and, in 1919, the Communist parties, industrial and political leaders began to look to the federal government, with its growing and powerful bureaucratic organizations to monitor, and control political opposition.”

FBI historian John A. Noakes concludes that “the domestic unrest during this period presented the Bureau of Investigation the opportunity to expand its domain and increase its power.”9 Major expansion of the state through the building of new bureaucracies (Bureau of Corporations, Department of Labor, Federal Trade Commission, etc.) and bureaucratic infighting for government resources and jurisdiction turned the largely immigrant-led unrest into an unprecedented opportunity for A. Mitchell Palmer and his lieutenant, J. Edgar Hoover, who just five years after the scare went on to serve as the director of the Bureau of Investigation, later to become the FBI, where he became the most powerful nonelected official in U.S. history.

During the raids, thousands of immigrants were surveilled, rounded up, and deported during the Red Scare’s Palmer Raids. In what sounds like a precursor to the current ICE raids, local police and federal agents collaborated around immigration. According to FBI historian Kenneth D. Ackerman, in his Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2007): “Backed by local police and volunteer vigilantes, federal agents hit in dozens of cities and arrested more than 10,000 suspected communists and fellow travelers. They burst into homes, classrooms and meeting halls, seizing everyone in sight, breaking doors and heads with abandon. The agents ignored legal niceties such as search warrants or arrest warrants. They questioned suspects in secret, imposed prohibitive bail and kept them locked up for months in foul, overcrowded, makeshift prisons.”

Sound familiar? Ackerman concludes: “Almost 90 years later, today’s war on terror exists in an echo chamber of the 1919 Red scare.” It was in the era of the Red Scare that talk of establishing a border patrol began, after Immigration Service authorities were overwhelmed by the tasks demanded of them after the United States entered World War I in 1917. “Thus,” concludes Joseph Nevins in Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2001), “the roots of the U.S. Border Patrol are to be found not only in concerns about unauthorized immigration, but also (and perhaps more so) in a preoccupation with matters of national security as related to the boundary.”

During the Great Depression, Mexicans in the United States were scapegoated for the economic hard times, as public xenophobia for the first time turned against them (having previously been fixated on the Chinese and “undesirable” Europeans). According to historians Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez in their history of this program, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s (University of New Mexico Press, 1995), calls to “get rid of the Mexicans” resulted in the INS’s Mexican repatriation program (1929–37), which, like today’s war on immigrants, relied heavily on warrantless mass raids and arrests—which “assumed the logistics of full-scale paramilitary operation,” according to a history of the program—with detainees routinely held incommunicado before being shipped off to Mexico. According to California’s Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program, passed in 2005, about 400,000 U.S. citizens and legal Mexican residents were forcibly removed in California alone; nationwide, an estimated 2 million people of Mexican descent were forcibly relocated to Mexico.

Complaints of INS abuse were legion, and a 1932 government commission on the matter concluded: “The apprehension and examination of supposed aliens are often characterized by methods [which are] unconstitutional, tyrranic and oppressive,” as quoted in Decade of Betrayal. The program represented the INS’s entry into the national security realm. This was cemented in 1940, when the Roosevelt administration transferred the agency from the Labor Department to Justice, home of the FBI. Indeed, Roosevelt, who a year later would begin detaining and interning Japanese Americans en masse, played a key role in framing immigration and the border as a national security issue. In the context of World War II, this often centered on keeping out “enemy aliens,” and as Nevins notes, for this reason, the Border Patrol personnel was almost doubled and played a role in the war, managing enemy alien detainment camps and helping defend the east coast. Again, we see the ways in which immigrants—in this case Japanese and Mexican immigrants—provide the state with the means to circumvent laws designed to protect the people from their government.

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As shown in the examples from U.S. history, immigrants provide the state with ample excuse to expand, especially in times of geopolitical and domestic crisis. During the post-revolutionary period, the pursuit of alleged immigrant subversives led to the massive funding of the Navy and to the expansion of state power through laws like the Alien and Seditions Acts. Similarly, the crisis following the end of World War I led to the creation of the FBI and to unprecedented government repression and expansion embodied by the Palmer raids. Viewed from a historical perspective, it is no surprise that the government should respond to the geopolitical and domestic crisis in the United States with expanded government power and bureaucracy. Rather than view the placement of ICE under DHS as solely about controlling immigrant labor or about political (and electoral) opportunism disguised as government policy (both are, in fact, part of the equation), it is important to connect the creation of ICE and its placement under DHS to the perpetual drive of government to expand its powers, especially its repressive apparatus and other mechanisms of social control.

From this perspective, the current framing of the issue of immigration as a “national security” concern—one requiring the bureaucratic shift toward “Homeland Security”—fits well within historical practices that extend government power to control not just immigrants, but those born here, most of whom don’t see immigration policy affecting them. One of the things that makes the current politico-bureaucratic moment different, however, is the fluidity and increasing precariousness of the state itself. Like other nation states, the United States suffers from strains wrought by the free hand of global corporations that have abandoned large segments of its workforce. Such a situation necessitates the institutionalization of the war on immigrants in order to get as many armed government agents into a society that may be teetering on even more serious collapse as seen in the recession and economic crisis devastating core components of the American Dream like education, health care, and home ownership.

Perhaps the most salient difference between today’s security state and those of the past is the central importance of the private sector. And unlike the previous periods, the creation of massive bureaucracies superseded the need to surveil, arrest, and deport migrants. Today, there appears to be a move to make permanent the capacity of the state to pursue, jail and deport migrants in order to sustain what we might call the migration-military-industrial complex, following Deepa Fernandes, Targeted: National Security and the Business of Immigration (Seven Stories Press, 2007). Several indicators make clear that we are well on our way to making the war on immigrants a permanent feature of a government in crisis.

Multibillion-dollar contracts for border security from DHS have created an important new market for aerospace companies like General Electric, Lockheed, and Boeing, which secured a $2.5 billion contract for the Secure Borders Initiative, a DHS program to build surveillance and other technological capabilities (see "Barricading the Border”).10 That some saw in 9/11 an opportunity to expand and grow government technological capabilities—and private sector patronage—through such contracts, can be seen in DHS’s “national laboratory for homeland security.”

Like its predecessor, the military-industrial complex, the migrant-military-industrial complex tries to integrate federal, state, and local economic interests as increasing numbers of companies bid for, and become dependent on, big contracts like the Boeing contract or the $385 million DHS contract for the construction of immigrant prisons.11 Like its military-industrial cousin, the migrant-military-industrial complex has its own web of relationships between corporations, government contracts, and elected officials. Nowhere is this connection clearer than in the case of James Sensenbrenner, the anti-immigrant godfather, who sponsored HR 4437, which criminalized immigrants and those who would help them. According to his 2005 financial disclosure statement, Sensenbrenner held $86,500 in Halliburton stocks and $563,536 in General Electric; Boeing is among the top contributors to the congressman’s PAC (Sensenbrenner also owns stocks in the Olive Garden restaurant chain, which hires undocumented workers.)12 The current war on immigrants is grounded in the need to build and maintain massive policing bureaucracies like ICE and DHS. The immigrant-rights movement must clearly understand this if it is to succeed in its strategies for the right to migrate, the right to work, and the right of migrants to share the fruits of their own labor.


Roberto Lovato is an associate editor with New America Media. A New York–based journalist, he contributes frequently to The Huffington Post and The Nation.

1. This article is a revised, updated version of “One Raid at a Time: How Immigrant Crackdowns Build the National Security State,” which appeared on publiceye.org, the website of Political Research Associates, in March.

2. “Special Report: Homeland Security Appropriations for FY 2005 (House & Senate) and California Implications,” the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, September 16, 2004.

3. Alec MacGillis, “Minutemen Assail Amnesty Idea,” The Washington Post, May 13, 2006.

4. “Militarizing the Border: Bush Calls for 6,000 National Guard Troops to Deploy to U.S.-Mexican Border,” Democracy Now!, May 16, 2006.

5. David Bacon, “The Real Political Purpose of the ICE Raids,” Dollars & Sense, January/February 2007.

6. “The American Dream Survey 2006,” Lake Partners Research, August 28, 2006.

7. John Morton Smith, “President John Adams, Thomas Cooper, and Sedition: A Case Study in Suppression,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 42, no. 3 (December 1955): 438–65.

8. Todd J. Pfannestiel, Rethinking the Red Scare: The Lusk Committee and New York’s Crusade Against Radicalism, 1919–1923 (Routledge, 2003).

9. John A. Noakes, “Enforcing Domestic Tranquility: State Building and the Origin of the FBI,” Qualitative Sociology 18, no. 2 (June 1995): 271–86.

10. Martie Cenkci, “At Technology’s Front Line,” Air Force Outreach Program Office, Outreach Prospective 5, no. 4 (Fall–Winter 2006): 10–11.

11. Alexandra Walker, “Sensenbrenner: Immigration Profiteer,” The Real Costs of Prison weblog, October 5, 2006.

12. Roberto Lovato, “Sensenbrenner Under Fire—Does Congressman Profit From Undocumented Labor?” New America Media, October 6, 2006.

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