September 17 is the anniversary of our U.S. Constitution. Like many attorneys, I have an inbox full of reminders about the birth of our Constitution and the role of attorneys in preserving its promise. Because I accept that role, today it feels more important than ever to remind us all that the promise of our Constitution doesn’t just rely on attorneys, it relies on all of us.
During my work at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, I constantly met colleagues whose journeys brought them to DHS because they were moved by 9/11 or a passion to achieve immigration reform. These colleagues and their unique journeys often inspired me.
I have no doubt that many DHS employees continue to be driven by these and other critical mission sets. Yet this is not what DHS is making the news for these days.
Especially on Constitution Day, let’s not allow chaotic news cycles to keep us from seeing what is right in front of us.
Many of us spoke up with broken and angry hearts as the federal government instituted a policy that unconstitutionally separated parents from their children at the border, leaving children defenseless, sometimes falling victim to abuse, and other times unable to be reunited with their family.
We watched stunned as DHS personnel gassed peaceful protesters in our nation’s capital to arrange a photo opportunity.
We read about them nabbing people off the streets in unmarked cars during protests.
We learn they conducted surveillance and distributed reports about U.S. journalists reporting on racial justice protests.
And most recently, we heard from a nurse who come forward to report haunting practices at a Georgia immigration detention center: an alarming number of incarcerated women being subjected to unwanted hysterectomies while being denied other needed medical care. A full investigation and actions are needed immediately to protect detained women from such painful violations of their bodies and their rights.
This does not encompass all DHS actions that raise concern for me or others, but it does drive home how far the agency’s recent actions have strayed from the basic principles of our constitution. To some of us, these acts have been shocking. To others, they feel sadly familiar because they echo practices of the past. What is clear is that we must put a stop to this direction now.
Leaders are needed in federal government who will ensure that the department acts within our laws and the U.S. Constitution. That doesn’t seem likely to happen until there is a change in leadership. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently concluded that the top two officials at DHS were not even lawfully appointed themselves. Instead, the White House and DHS chose to bypass Congress’s constitutional role in vetting and confirming top government leaders.
The Department of Homeland Security was created to make the country safer. Our leaders there have a duty to prepare for the worst and help coordinate responses when the worst actually occurs; a duty to gather, report, and coordinate countermeasures to the risks that our nation is facing; and in their responsibility of managing our borders, as many prepare for immigration reform, they have a duty to avoid abuses of power, protect human rights, and act lawfully.
It’s Constitution Day in 2020. Public officials do not get to choose whose constitutional rights should and should not be protected. It is time for Congress and the public to ensure that DHS officials act within the laws and constitution that they have sworn to uphold.