When President Trump pushed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign, he said he wanted a “tougher” effort to secure the U.S. southern border. His undue focus on migrants risks diverting energy and resources from bigger threats to national security – and, incidentally, is making his favorite issue harder to solve.
The primary purpose of the Department of Homeland Security is, well, homeland security. The agency was formed after the Sept. 11 attacks with a mandate to secure the nation against threats. The border issue that preoccupies the president is important, but doesn’t rank as a serious threat to national security.
Apprehensions at the border have spiked over the past 2 months – but most of the people concerned are asking for asylum, not trying to sneak in. Many of their claims for protection may ultimately be judged invalid, but these arrivals don’t merit Trump’s description as “some of the roughest people you’ve ever seen.” Undocumented immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated for crimes than native-born Americans, and stories about suspected terrorists hiding among asylum seekers haven’t stood up to scrutiny.
The administration’s fixation on the politics of migration has compromised other security efforts. Drug prosecutions along the southwest border have plunged. Investigations of organized migrant smuggling have taken a backseat to catching individuals. Sending soldiers to the border has stretched military resources. DHS has diverted funding from the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, preparing for natural disasters, and building a badly needed heavy icebreaker for the Coast Guard. And consider the opportunity cost of distracting the head of DHS from paying more attention to cybersecurity, which Nielsen described to Congress last month as possibly “the highest threat that we face in the homeland.” There’s economic damage too: Redeploying customs inspectors has slowed commerce at ports of entry.
This serious misallocation of effort hasn’t even succeeded in the goal Trump set for it. Restricting the number of asylum applicants who can present themselves at ports of entry just prompted more to cross illegally. The shameful policy of separating children from their families was abandoned after an outcry – and, even while it was in place, it failed.
No question, the U.S. asylum system needs to be fixed, and the border should be made secure. Those goals are best achieved by working with Democrats and America’s neighbors, not by seeking to antagonize them for political purposes. Above all, the DHS should get its priorities straight, and remember that its main job is to guard against real threats to the nation’s security.