Originally published by The New York Times
When President Trump addressed employees of the Department of Homeland Security, just five days after being sworn in, he essentially had one issue on his mind: cracking down on illegal immigration.
Absent from the speech was any mention of the department’s other responsibilities, like protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure, including computer systems, ensuring airline passenger safety or even protecting the president himself.
The address in January, critics said, reflected the president’s nearly single-minded priority for the Department of Homeland Security, which employs nearly 250,000 people in seven agencies.
“It’s all immigration, it’s the wall and it’s enforcement,” said Juliette Kayyem, a Homeland Security official in the Obama administration. “Nothing about FEMA or cyber or counterintelligence,” she added, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Just immigration all the time.”
Homeland Security officials reject the idea that the agency is too focused on immigration. Officials noted that Mr. Trump signed an executive order on cybersecurity and has proposed adding money and staff to the agency’s cybersecurity efforts. The officials add that the president appointed Brock Long, an experienced emergency management official, to head FEMA. Mr. Long was confirmed, 95 to 4, by the Senate. They also point out that John F. Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary, has taken a number of steps to protect air travel, including a temporary ban on portable electronics from some countries and implementing new screening measures to thwart attacks.
“No one is going to tell you that immigration and border security aren’t priorities; they are the priorities that the president ran on,” said Jonathan Hoffman, assistant secretary for public affairs at the department. “But the focus on these issues isn’t so much that we have neglected any part of the Department of Homeland Security.”
But so far the Trump administration has focused on illegal immigration: building a wall along the border with Mexico, hiring thousands of newBorder Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and deporting tens of thousands of people in the country illegally.
Illegal immigration was the centerpiece of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, drawing large crowds as he promised to build a border wall and deport millions in the country illegally. But security experts said the country faces a number of continuing threats ranging from domestic terrorists to attacks from political extremists and cyberattacks against the nation’s election systems that demand the full attention of the Department of Homeland Security.
“John Kelly and his staff have a wide portfolio,” said Tom Ridge, who served as the first Homeland Security secretary, under President George W. Bush. “I hope the White House realizes that they have an enormous job in protecting the border and the nation’s infrastructure from cyberattacks. They can’t be used just to keep campaign promises.”
James Norton, who was a deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the Bush administration, said cybersecurity should be an essential priority for the department, given concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 election and other attempts to penetrate critical systems.
“But they have done very little on the cybersecurity front,” he said, adding that the administration has yet to nominate a leader for the National Protection and Programs Directorate, the office that oversees Homeland Security’s cybersecurity efforts.
The budget proposal Mr. Trump submitted to Congress prioritizes agencies and programs that target illegal immigration.
Under the plan, funding would increase just over 21 percent forCustoms and Border Protection, the parent agency of the Border Patrol. Much of the increase would be used to build a border wall. But the agency would also be charged with hiring 5,000 new Border Patrol agents, even as the number of people crossing the border illegally has declined. Last month, 21,659 border crossers were caught, compared with 45,722 in June 2016, a 53 percent decrease.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s budget would increase even more, nearly 30 percent. The new funding would pay for more deportation officers, detention centers and money to fly or bus unauthorized immigrants back to their home countries.
But other services and programs within Homeland Security would have their funding cut. The proposed budget includes cuts to the Coast Guard, elimination of the Transportation Security Administration’s teams of uniformed armed officers that sweep public facilities, and shutdowns of several of the department’s national labs, including one in New York City that helps detect nuclear radiation. Several grant programs that pay for local police officers in airports or those that fight extremism would be cut or reprogrammed.
For example, Life After Hate, a group that works to deradicalize neo-Nazis and members of white supremacist groups, was slated to get $400,000 in the final days of the Obama administration. But Homeland Security canceled funding to the group in favor of groups and law enforcement agencies that target Muslim extremists.
Cutting grant programs that combat domestic extremism is a mistake when attacks by white supremacist and other hate groups are on the rise, said Erroll Southers, a former F.B.I. agent who is the director of a program at the University of Southern California that studies homegrown extremism.
“You can’t just focus on threats by ISIS or other groups, although it’s important,” he said, referring to the Islamic State. “But there are real threats here at home that have to be addressed.”
Mr. Hoffman, the Homeland Security spokesman, said that the agency’s critics were misguided and that their criticism did not reflect the day-to-day operation of the department.
“We’re not out there talking about cybersecurity, T.S.A., FEMA and other issues every day, but the focus is on it every day,” he said. “All the components and agencies are sufficiently funded to do their jobs.”
Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, a frequent critic of the department, said the White House bore a large share of the blame for what she considered the agency’s overemphasis on targeting immigrants who were in the country illegally but posed little threat.
But she said Mr. Kelly should also be held accountable for the agency’s immigration priorities. Ms. Harris was one of nearly a dozen Democratic senators who did not vote to confirm him.
“During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Kelly came across as this person who would be a moderating voice in the Trump administration, someone who would speak truth to power,” said Ms. Harris, a member of the Homeland Security Committee. “But that’s not what we’re seeing from him as secretary of Homeland Security. Under him, this agency has seemed eager to carry out the destructive immigration policies of this administration.”
Leon E. Panetta, a former director of the C.I.A. and secretary of defense, said Mr. Kelly was simply following orders.
“John Kelly is being a good Marine,” Mr. Panetta said. “He was loyal to me, and he’s loyal to his commander in chief. I don’t think some of the things the department is doing reflect the views of John Kelly.”
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