How Would Dismantling the DHS Affect the War on Drugs?

August 12, 2020

It’s time to abolish the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), writes ACLU Director Anthony Romero in an August 9 USA Today op-ed. He calls for dismantling the DHS as it currently exists, and breaking it up into smaller agencies with more oversight and accountability.

Romero notes that the ACLU has essentially been arguing this for almost 20 years, ever since the DHS was formed following 9/11. But, he says, President Trump’s recent deployment of DHS agents to attack Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon and elsewhere is an urgent reminder of this need.

Romero’s op-ed, which details a range of human rights abuses perpetrated by the DHS, doesn’t explicity touch on how dismantling the department might affect the War on Drugs. The question is complex: DHS is an agency built of many smaller agencies, working in areas from cybersecurity, to immigration and citizenship, to even the Secret Service. Its responsibilities overlap those of other federal departments.

Federal drug enforcement is managed by several different entities. The cabinet-level Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), headed by the US “Drug Czar,” advises the White House and coordinates with state, local, tribal and foreign governments. Then, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), under the Department of Justice, is responsible for enforcing the Controlled Substances Act by prosecuting interstate and international drug trafficking and production.

But the DHS is intimately involved in the War on Drugs. While none of the 23 different DHS agencies or departments is explicitly tasked with fighting the drug war, federal drug enforcement arguably depends on the DHS.

Let’s take a brief look at several agencies under the DHS umbrella and the roles they play.

One is the US Coast Guard, which patrols US ports, inland waterways, coasts and even international waters. “The USCG plays a crucial role in efforts to keep dangerous narcotic drugs moving by sea from reaching the United States,” reads a 2016 analysis by the US State Department. “Coast Guard efforts focus on removing illegal drugs as close to their origins in South America and as far from US shores as possible, where drug shipments are in their most concentrated bulk form.”

And if “success” is measured by drug seizures—despite the fact that these fail to significantly impact supply—the Coast Guard could be considered effective. In June 2019, Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) argued that instead of investing in a border wall to stop illegal drugs, Trump should put that money into Coast Guard. He cited the fact that it intercepts more drugs than all other federal agencies combined.

But the Coast Guard doesn’t just seize drugs; it seizes humans. Like Ecuadorian fishermen, as Filter has reported. Thanks to a 2006 law, the Coast Guard can detain anyone suspected of trafficking drugs in international waters—regardless of whether they are headed towards the US. The US has agreements with dozens of countries allowing it to patrol their waters and arrest and extradite foreign nationals, prosecuting them in the US. The Coast Guard detained 3,200 people in this way from 2012-2018.

Next comes US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP is described as “the nation’s first line of defense against the introduction of narcotics and dangerous drugs from foreign sources.” It does this by intercepting people, goods and vehicles coming through US borders and ports of entry. It deploys patrol agents, canine teams and surveillance technology to search for drugs.

The War on Drugs drives CBP abuses. A new report shows that from 2000-2016, the CBP seized more than $2 billion in cash at from travelers at US airports. But 70 percent of the time, no arrests were made. CBP defended this by saying that large cash seizures are intended to fight drug and human trafficking, and money laundering.

But seizing cash is the tip of the CBP iceberg. A 2015 analysis found that more CBP officers are arrested for corruption, per capita, than any other federal law agency. Officers’ extreme abuses have included running people over in cars, engaging in fatal high-speed car chases, sexual assault, kidnapping and child rape.

Then there’s US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE has different departments that enforce drug laws within its Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division. ICE also coordinates with other national and state-level drug task forces throughout the US, contributing intelligence about money laundering and bulk cash smuggling. HSI’s Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST) investigates criminal organizations abroad, including those involved in drug trafficking.

ICE’s enforcement of drug laws falls hard on immigrants, both undocumented and sanctioned. Immigrants can be deported for any drug offense, even nearly all possession charges. Any charge that includes drug sales—even minor—is treated as “drug trafficking,” and views immigrants involved as “aggravated felons.” Any drug charge can permanently bar an immigrant from obtaining legal status. And immigrants are required to be detained without bond for any drug conviction—even if it didn’t result in a prison sentence.

From 2007-2012, deportations of non-citizens whose most serious charge was a drug conviction increased 22 percent. That was over 260,000 people deported during that time. Non-citizens deported with drug possession convictions increased 43 percent.

Finally, there’s the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). The TSA is not a law enforcement agency, and its main role is to enforce air travel security. But it does call upon local or federal law enforcement to investigate suspected crimes that it observes during airport checks, including drugs.

This has led to similar complaints about civil asset forfeiture—a widespread law enforcement abuse recently condemned in Filter by Diane Goldstein—as those made against CBP. One federal lawsuit against the TSA and DEA alleges that the agencies unlawfully seized $82,000 in cash from a Pennsylvania woman, and detained her without probable cause or suspicion. And an analysis by the Buffalo News found that over four years, airport and federal police seized over $860,000 from travelers in the city’s airport without charging them with crimes.

In these cases, money can be seized if sniffer dogs smell hints of drugs on cash. Federal law allows police to keep up to 80 percent of the funds seized.

So what could abolishing the DHS really mean in the War on Drugs? First, it’s unlikely that most of its individual agencies would also be abolished: Although ICE is itself subject to calls for abolition, the Coast Guard, CBP and TSA are likely going nowhere.

What’s more likely though, as Romero pointed out in his op-ed, is that breaking apart the DHS agencies could improve their accountability and oversight. It would allow Congress to more directly question their leadership and investigate abuses.

Abolishing the DHS could create a more democratic process for choosing the leadership of individual agencies, increasing the possibility that they would be better led. Currently, the DHS Secretary is appointed by the President and confirmed by at least 51 votes in the Senate. Requiring the heads of former DHS agencies to be confirmed by Congress would at least create more debate and visibility around who is being given the immense powers these entities wield.


Photo by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is an editorial fellow at Filter.

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