WASHINGTON – A federal agency born in the aftermath of Sept. 11 when the primary concern was stopping terrorists from entering the U.S. is changing to meet new challenges, said the secretary of homeland security as he marked its 20-year anniversary during a ceremony Wednesday.
Alejandro Mayorkas highlighted emerging threats such as cybersecurity attacks and lone offenders radicalized online, but the Department of Homeland Security is perhaps most in the spotlight for its role in the country's immigration debate.
“We have adapted and built capabilities to address the threats and challenges as they have evolved,” Mayorkas told a crowd assembled at the agency's Washington headquarters. “We were created 20 years ago in the largest restructuring of the federal government since World War II. Now we are a critical part of people’s lives, interacting with the American people on a daily basis more than any other department or agency in the federal government.”
Hundreds of people from across the department — the third largest in the federal government with 260,000 employees — gathered to mark the occasion, among them the heads of some of the various agencies that make up DHS, including the Transportation Security Administration, the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency and the Secret Service.
Former President George W. Bush appeared in a video message, as did the agency's first head, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. President Joe Biden thanked DHS employees for their service, saying that because of them the country is safer and stronger.
“We owe you," he said.
The Department of Homeland Security was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It was compiled from 22 federal agencies or departments whose responsibilities ranged from Border Patrol agents on horseback to Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel inspecting damaged homes after hurricanes to Coast Guard personnel teaching boaters about marine safety.
The creation of the agency was described as no less than the “most significant transformation of the U.S. government in over a half-century” in a June 2002 document laying out Bush's vision for the agency. The goal, according to the report, was to create a single agency out of the “current confusing patchwork of government agencies” responsible for protecting the country against the threats it was facing then and get ready for problems it would face in the future. Bush nominated Ridge to be the first person to lead the department.
At the time the U.S. was already at war in Afghanistan and was months away from invading Iraq. Homeland Security was tasked primarily with preventing terrorist attacks in the U.S. The plan came at a time when the administration was facing questions on what it knew about the terrorists before they struck on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Every member of this new department accepts an essential mission — to prevent another terrorist attack,” Bush told Cabinet members and federal workers involved in homeland defense in 2003 on the agency's first day.
But in recent years, other issues have taken center stage, including immigration, cybersecurity, the rise of domestic extremism and the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans intent on making immigration a key election issue in 2024 have portrayed the southern border as wide open for migrants and targeted Mayorkas for impeachment.
Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal