Under President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant administration, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) quietly assumed unprecedented power in Central America. This increased influence, however, quickly became a liability for the United States and a great danger for regional migrants.
In a bombshell report released in October 2020, the Democratic staff of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (SCFR) revealed that DHS personnel stationed in Guatemala directly participated in a Guatemalan immigration enforcement operation. With DHS’s help, Guatemalan border police detained hundreds of migrants passing through the country in a caravan from Honduras.
According to the report, DHS secretly used State Department funds to rent unmarked vans and transport migrants to processing facilities back at the Guatemala-Honduras border. DHS confirmed that men were transported in different buses from women and children, but it could not say whether it separated families during the transportation process or whether it had plans to reunite any families that may have been separated.
DHS’s actions in Guatemala’s immigration enforcement operation were inhumane and harmed U.S. foreign policy interests in two major ways.
First, DHS willfully ignored State Department directives as stipulated by a prior written agreement between the two federal agencies. The State Department agreed to provide DHS with funding for its activities in Guatemala solely for the purpose of training Guatemalan officers, mainly in battling narcotics trafficking. Any participation in local enforcement operations, however, was explicitly prohibited.
To make matters worse, DHS initially denied its involvement in the immigration enforcement operation, covered up its illegitimate use of funding, and effectively lied to the State Department. The State Department then unintentionally spread the misinformation to Congress when answering oversight questions from the SCFR. Though DHS later admitted to its complicity in the operation, the deceit revealed a concerning disregard for State Department authority.
Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the SCFR, criticized DHS’s dishonesty and impudence in the preface of the SCFR report:
“Blurring the lines between the work of our nation’s professional diplomatic corps and that of domestic immigration enforcement agents is corrosive and wholly unacceptable,” he wrote. “The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection have no business acting as un-deputized international migration police throughout Latin America.”
Second, DHS may have broken several international agreements about non-refoulement by helping transport the Honduran migrants back to the Guatemala-Honduras border. As a signatory of the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1984 Convention Against Torture, the U.S. is obligated to not return migrants to countries where they face significant risk of being killed or seriously harmed. This also means that migrants cannot be sent back to their home country until they are considered for and officially denied refugee or asylum status.
There was a very real possibility that some of the migrants in the caravan were escaping violence, and DHS had a duty to investigate that. According to Human Rights Watch, Honduras has one of the highest violent crime and murder rates in the world. Abuses against journalists, human rights defenders, and the LGBT community often go unpunished as the result of an inefficient judicial system and a corrupt police force. When Doctors Without Borders surveyed Honduran migrants at medical facilities in Mexico, it found that 57% of them felt unsafe in their home country and 45.4% lost a family member to violence in the past two years.
DHS, however, did not keep any records during the operation and therefore could not confirm whether its agents properly screened the group of Honduran migrants for refugees and asylum seekers. Whether deliberate or accidental, the department’s negligence was morally reprehensible, and it still severely undermined several U.S. treaty commitments to protect human rights.
After details about the operation came out, Democratic lawmakers and civil society organizations pushed the Inspectors General at the State Department and DHS to investigate what went wrong and who was responsible. As a result, the official who authorized DHS’s participation was reportedly sent back to Washington and had his assignment cut short. But although his dismissal was warranted by his severe mishandling of the situation, it is important to remember that the issue is bigger than one person and one operation.
The Trump administration frequently ignored demands by civil rights organizations for a more transparent and better-regulated DHS. Instead, the administration continued to inflate DHS’s power in Central America. They pulled tens of millions of dollars out of the State Department budget to fund DHS border security programs in the region, and they allowed DHS to negotiate foreign assistance agreements with Central American countries that normally would have been under the sole purview of the State Department.
Ultimately, DHS operates as if it is above the law and can play by its own rules. This attitude is not surprising, however, when considering that there has never been any meaningful recourse for those harmed by DHS personnel. A Mexican teenager once was murdered in a cross-border shooting by a Border Patrol agent who was later acquitted, several children in detention centers have died as a result of systematic abuse and neglect, and hundreds of families separated at the border still have yet to be reunited.
As Francisco Bencosme, a senior policy advisor for the Open Society Foundation’s Latin America program, points out: “It’s part of a larger culture of impunity set at the highest levels, of policies of deportation, and DHS has to some extent been given a green light to run amok with this policy which contravenes international human rights norms and treaty obligations.”
The same culture of impunity that enabled DHS to boldly lie to the State Department also allows it to turn around and write off desperate migrants seeking safety and security as “illegal.” To justify their abuse of migrants at the border and undocumented immigrants detained in the United States, immigration enforcement officials are quick to point to law and order. Yet, the very agency that oversees these officers has frequently flouted law and order in ways that consequently endanger U.S. interests abroad as well as human lives.
And because DHS never faced any real accountability under Trump, the incoming administration under Joe Biden faces a tough task ahead in reining in DHS and reconfiguring its role in Central America. Alexander Mayorkas, Biden’s pick for DHS Secretary, will bring much-needed experience to the table.
Mayorkas served as deputy DHS Secretary under the Obama Administration, and he played a key role in the implementation of DACA, a program that has brought relief to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. If confirmed, he would also be the first Latino and first immigrant to head the department. But although Mayorkas has pledged to reverse Trump’s hard-line immigration policies and pursue a more humane approach, he will be leading an agency that will still employ plenty of influential right-wing, Trump-emboldened officials.
Whether Biden and Mayorkas are able to effectively lead DHS, restore its reputation, and rebuild its relations with Central American countries is still to be seen. But at least now, there is finally room for optimism.