President Biden on Wednesday traveled to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to mark 20 years since the creation of the sprawling agency, as its leader, Alejandro Mayorkas, faces a barrage of criticism from Republican lawmakers.
Biden extolled the value of DHS, an agency that has faced its share of controversy since it was formed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to combat terrorism and potential threats against the United States.
The agency has grown significantly in the 20 years since its creation. It now houses more than a dozen government agencies, and its purview includes matters related to immigration, cybersecurity, election integrity and disaster response. The department as a whole has roughly 260,000 employees, Biden noted.
“In the 20 years since DHS began, the world has become more interconnected, more complicated than ever, and new threats are emerging with the incredible advances in technology,” Biden said in prepared remarks. “Some are frightening … many are reassuring. And yet because of you, America is safer and stronger and is better prepared to meet whatever threat we face.”
But, the agency’s work securing the southern border has been in the spotlight and the target of intense scrutiny during the past two administrations.
The focus on the influx of migrants at the southern border has made it tough for other work of the department to get attention, argued Stewart Verdery, a former assistant secretary at DHS under President George W. Bush.
“Twenty years ago at its creation, DHS was supposed to tackle several equally important missions at all once — aviation security, securing international travel and disaster preparedness. Of course the southern border was part of the equation, but it wasn’t the whole equation,” he said. “But the political focus on migrant flows in this hemisphere by both the right and the left has almost made it impossible for the other missions to get any real attention, especially from the Congress.”
During the Trump administration, DHS was frequently at the center of criticism because of its immigration enforcement responsibilities. Former President Trump largely used the agency to implement his crackdown on the flow of immigrants into the country, and some Democrats during the last administration called for defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is housed within DHS.
Trump also publicly clashed with cybersecurity experts who said the 2020 election had been secure as the former president sowed doubt about the results.
Biden said on Wednesday that the work of DHS is now “even more important” than it has been in its 20 years, rattling off its work, notably including “protecting our air, our land, our maritime borders.”
The department was at the center of a firestorm over an order under Trump to separate migrant families who illegally crossed the border, and the government’s inability to reunite hundreds of those families in a timely manner has lingered into the Biden administration.
The department’s secretary, Mayorkas, has been closely scrutinized by Republicans who have complained that he has not done enough to secure the southern border and reduce the flow of migrants. Some Republicans have called for Mayorkas’s impeachment over his handling of the border.
But Biden came to do the defense of Mayorkas, who he nominated, calling him a “true patriot” who “decided his career to protecting and serving the American people, while upholding our nation’s laws and standing up for American values.”
The ceremony on Wednesday also included remarks from Mayorkas, as well as recorded messages from former President George W. Bush and Tom Ridge, the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which was created under Bush’s tenure.
“The people who work at DHS come to work every morning knowing their most important job is to protect their fellow citizens,” Bush said in a pre-recorded message. “You’ve worked tirelessly and effectively to do just that. I thank you for your service to our country and for the sacrifices you have made in the pursuit of keeping your neighbors safe.”
Updated at 5:30 p.m.