Redefining Homeland Security: A New Framework for DHS To Meet Today’s Challenges

Getty/Drew Angerer: A U.S. Coast Guard boat cruises through New York Harbor in August 2018.

Overview: To meet the challenges of today, the Biden administration and Congress should reform the Department of Homeland Security around a mission that highlights safety and services alongside its traditional protecting roles.

Executive summary:

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created nearly 20 years ago in response to catastrophic terrorist attacks on the United States. What America needs from DHS today, however, is different from when it was founded. While the department still has an important role to play in preventing attacks against the United States from abroad, it is time to refine the department’s mission and priorities to ensure that they fit current needs.

Many of today’s most serious threats to America’s safety and prosperity—natural disasters, pandemic disease, cyberattacks, and violent white supremacy—originate at home or are borderless by nature. In an era of increased movement of people and goods across borders, we need a DHS that prioritizes the rule of law, and one that protects all Americans as well as everyone who comes to live, study, work, travel, and seek safety here. Despite consensus among policymakers that the department could be far more effective, there is little agreement on how to fix it. Public debate over the future of DHS has fallen into two predictable camps: One side calls for the department, or parts of it, to be dismantled, while the other side argues that the solution to DHS’s shortcomings is to hand it even more resources and responsibility. Neither is the right choice.

The Center for American Progress believes that having a Cabinet agency such as DHS remains critical to the safety and well-being of Americans. With appropriate oversight and respect for civil liberties, the department has tremendous potential to advance public safety and provide critical services.

While the department will continue its efforts to protect, secure, prevent, and enforce, CAP proposes a strategic shift to a safety and services framework for DHS that would bring the department’s existing responsibilities into balance and realign its priorities around five new core values: connecting, communicating, facilitating, welcoming, and helping. In recommending this shift, CAP acknowledges that threats to Americans’ safety and security will continue to require a strong and coordinated response from DHS. CAP also recognizes that the safety and services framework proposed will, in many areas, be enabled by the department’s threat management capabilities. But it is time for DHS to focus on the missions and activities that it is uniquely capable of carrying out, and for which it, rather than other agencies, is the natural lead. This means, for example, dialing up DHS’s focus on disaster relief and cybersecurity and dialing down its law enforcement focus, particularly where other government agencies have or should have primary responsibility. In line with this new vision, CAP recommends that purely investigative and detention functions be moved out of DHS and transferred to other agencies, such as the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons, which are the federal lead for those functions.

To maximize its value and effectiveness in today’s environment, DHS should organize—and articulate its mission—around a balanced set of activities that prioritize safety and services roles more fully with DHS’s other protecting, securing, and defending roles DHS should dial up, or increase, its strategic focus in the following areas:

Connecting: DHS should prioritize service and partnerships and invest in efforts to connect state, local, tribal, and territorial officials with federal resources and officials.

Communicating: DHS should manage information sharing and public disclosures of intelligence between federal entities and their local counterparts through a leading role that would be a valuable public service. Facilitating: DHS should continue to facilitate lawful international trade and travel, ensure that U.S. transportation services are safe, and maintain U.S waterways and maritime resources.

Welcoming: DHS should provide efficient and respectful service to aspiring citizens and other immigrants and emphasize its unique role in welcoming the people who immigrate to, visit, or seek refuge in the United States. Helping: DHS should expand its existing capacity on disaster relief and emergency management and invest in new, flexible headquarters and regional capabilities that can address a wide range of emergencies and situations.

DHS should dial down its strategic focus in the following areas, bringing them into balance with its other priorities:

Protecting: DHS should coordinate cybersecurity and critical infrastructure to bridge the gap between public and privately owned infrastructure and ensure that federal protection efforts can effectively extend to all sectors across the country.

Securing: DHS should maintain its core objective of securely, efficiently, and humanely managing our air, land, and maritime borders.

Preventing: DHS should focus on the increasing prevalence of domestic challenges and borderless threats while maintaining its important role in preventing attacks against the United States at home and abroad. Enforcing: DHS should conduct a recalibration of its enforcement activities within broader department goals of safety and service and move law enforcement activities that are not aligned to this mission to other areas of the federal government that are better suited to these functions.

To make the case for reform, this report first outlines the legacy of DHS’s hasty founding and how past attempts to reform DHS have failed to reorient the department away from a disproportionate focus on foreign threats. It then provides an analysis of DHS’s challenges, highlighting long-standing foundational problems, including where the department is absent or not contributing. It also identifies opportunities to reform the factors that hinder DHS from being maximally effective in providing value to the nation. Next, the report reimagines what it means to keep America secure in today’s world and provides a new framework for rebalancing the department’s focus toward new and emerging needs. It recommends that DHS adopt a new safety and services model, outlined above, that increases its emphasis on connecting, communicating, facilitating, welcoming, and helping, while simultaneously recalibrating its focus on external threats by bringing its emphasis on protecting, securing, preventing, and enforcing into better balance with its other priorities. Finally, this report proposes near- and longer-term steps that the current administration could take to realize this vision and deliver better value for the American people.

About the authors: Mara Rudman is the executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress.

Rudy deLeon is a senior fellow with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.

Joel Martinez is the Mexico policy analyst for National Security and International Policy at the Center.

Elisa Massimino is a senior fellow with the National Security and International Policy team at at the Center.

Silva Mathema is the acting director of Immigration Policy at the Center.

Katrina Mulligan is the acting vice president for National Security and International Policy at the Center. Alexandra Schmitt is a senior policy analyst on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center. Philip E. Wolgin is the acting vice president of Immigration Policy at the Center.

To read full report, visit: Redefining Homeland Security: A New Framework for DHS To Meet Today’s Challenges - Center for American Progress