Abolish what? The deportation arm of the United States government appears to be secure under President Joe Biden. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a “noble mission,” according to Alejandro Mayorkas, the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Telling DHS employees that he was “100 percent opposed to the abolition of ICE,” Mayorkas recently criticized sanctuary cities and called for more prosecutions of illegal migrants. He also said that the Biden administration may resume construction of the much-despised border wall.
Mayorkas is hardly the only senior Biden official displaying a Trumpian enthusiasm for the DHS and the agency’s hard-line policies. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has spoken of the need for “strong borders” as a guarantor of national security. Last week, Biden’s Justice Department refused to release emails and minutes of meetings between Trump officials that would shed light on the government’s family separation practices. The documents had been requested as part of a class action lawsuit filed by separated families. “Those privileges protect institutional interest in the decision-making process and the ability of a wide range of government employees to provide candid advice,” said Justice Department lawyers.
Almost three months into his term, Biden’s DHS is rounding into form. Despite some notable leadership changes, in policy and practice it looks a lot like Trump’s DHS—that is to say, it seems chiefly concerned with protecting institutional interests, including its predecessor’s policies, while seeking to expand its authority with little regard for civil liberties. Though Biden has said that the previous administration’s treatment of migrants represented a “moral and national shame,” not much has changed except a softening of rhetoric. From deportations to no-fly lists to mandatory minimum drug sentences, Biden has yet to use the formidable power of his office to implement more progressive, humane policies. And it’s not clear that he ever will.
In January, the Biden administration decided to maintain a Trump-era designation called Title 42, which gives the government wide latitude to deport immigrants, ostensibly in order to stop the spread of Covid-19. That authority enabled the government to deport 530,000 migrants last year, according to the Los Angeles Times, and drastically cut down asylum requests. As the Times noted, Vice President Kamala Harris opposed the policy as a senator, calling it “an executive power grab.” (The United Nations high commissioner for refugees has said that public health measures, including testing and quarantine, should not “result in denying [migrants] an effective opportunity to seek asylum.”)
While the border remains a humanitarian disaster, DHS has signaled that it might further expand its authorities, especially in the realm of surveillance. After Biden took office, the agency opened a “comment period” on proposed rules for biometric screening of travelers. As the law firm Jones Day noted, the rules are designed to create an “automated, biometric entry and exit system at air, sea, and land ports” throughout the country. The expansion of biometric surveillance dovetails nicely with various post–January 6 proposals to launch something resembling a war against domestic extremism. A number of Democratic politicians, most notably CIA analyst turned congressional Representative Elissa Slotkin, proposed using the no-fly list and other surveillance authorities to tackle this new threat. Slotkin has also suggested designating more white supremacist organizations as terrorist groups.
Meanwhile, the domestic extremism battle has turned online, pitting would-be censors against conspiracy-addled QAnon fanatics. DHS said that it would work more closely with corporations to sift the internet for dangerous material, however ill-defined. “The idea is to identify people who may through their social media behavior be prone to influence by toxic messaging spread by foreign governments, terrorists, and domestic extremists,” an anonymous official told NBC News, recalling the Obama administration’s failed programs to preempt online radicalization before it happened.
President Biden is also short on answers to tackle police violence, which he condemns almost as much as he does the rioting it produces. On the legislative front, the president supports the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act but has also spoken favorably of giving more money to police. To that end, transfer of military equipment to civilian police departments increased in the first quarter of this year. “The military equipment police have received through the 1033 program is now Biden’s policy,” wrote one analyst.
If Biden wishes to implement real domestic national security reforms, he will have to make tough choices that will surely tank whatever irrational hopes for bipartisanship the administration might harbor. These are still early days, but there is nothing, for example, stopping Biden from commuting federal death penalty sentences—an avowed death penalty opponent, Biden has reportedly discussed ending the practice at the federal level. It is also well within his power to sign a designation that raises the refugee cap, which he promised to do as a candidate. Similarly, there is no reason why an administration ostensibly committed to criminal justice reform should maintain Trump’s policies on mandatory minimum sentencing for fentanyl. But that’s exactly what’s happening.
Team Biden is now comfortably in control of the country’s vast national security and criminal justice apparatus. But instead of a course correction from the well-documented woes of the Trump era, DHS is still bogged down in the same sort of institutional inertia and wagon-circling reflected by the administration lawyers who refused to turn over documents in the family separation case. These agencies are largely in the business of securing their own power. They will not somehow become more virtuous or civic-minded under a Democratic president, not without tectonic shifts in policy.
There’s little reason to believe that Biden will take a scalpel to the bloated DHS bureaucracy or tear down the border wall. As he was during the Obama administration, Biden seems to be content to be a happy warrior, backing his national security apparatus as it continues to deport masses of immigrants and spy on the entire country, all while pledging that the good guys are in charge. With minor variations, these policies have been a matter of bipartisan consensus since the George W. Bush administration embarked on the path of turning the country into a garrison state after 9/11.
Deportations, a domestic war on terror, widespread biometric surveillance, punitive anti-refugee measures, military gear for police—these aren’t the way toward a more just society. Unfortunately, Biden’s actions have yet to catch up with his warmed-over rhetoric about a post-Trump rehabilitation. But a jaundiced public, now fluent in the language of street protest, is bound to wake up to the fact that Joe Biden isn’t a reformer at all. Rather, he’s the weary standard-bearer of the powerful status quo.