Reflections, and regrets, 20 years after I opened the Department of Homeland Security
This was my second draft notice. The first came from Richard Nixon in 1969 and took me to Southeast Asia. More than 30 years later came notice number two, this time from George W. Bush. The president called me to leave my post as Pennsylvania’s governor to serve in the White House Office of Homeland Security. I accepted the call to duty, knowing full well the challenge that awaited.
Some people had cautioned me not to take on the assignment. They warned it would be impossible to succeed. I never saw it that way.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked our nation, a manifestation of evil. I wanted to join the effort to fight back. Led by President Bush, our nation responded to a nonpartisan call to protect our country from all future terrorist attacks. All options were on the table. During this remarkable time in our history, the blueprint for today’s Department of Homeland Security was forged.
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I will never forget going to Capitol Hill in April 2002 with draft legislation to create DHS. All four leaders of Congress, Republican and Democratic alike, greeted me and said they would get this done. In less than a year, legislation was enacted that constituted the largest reorganization of the federal government since the joint system of command was conceived by our former military leaders after World War II. Monumental change was called for, and the results have been a stronger and safer America.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security first opened its doors on March 1, 2003. In those early days, we referred to our colleagues as plank holders. Every detail of standing up the new department required tremendous attention to detail and effort. We had challenges with our facilities, our budget, and congressional jurisdictional issues. Even today, as I keep in touch with people in the department all these years later, they face many of the same challenges.
If I have one regret 20 years later, it is that America is still without a 21st-century immigration policy. This is not the fault of the department but lies with Congress and the many administrations that have come and gone — Republican and Democratic alike. DHS oversees America’s immigration system, yet it does so with one hand tied behind its back. Our nation remains unable to establish a modern and sustainable immigration policy because we have yet to find a way to deal with illegal immigration at the southern border.
Both parties hold strong views on key components of immigration policy. Hidden behind pointed rhetoric and outsize political posturing is the critical need to fashion an immigration policy that secures the southern border, shows compassion to “Dreamers,” builds a foreign worker entry and exit system, provides H-2B visa cap relief, and resolves the fate of those who, while entering illegally, have been lawful and contributing residents. I have been pleading for such changes for more than 20 years now. It is well past time to govern.
As I have stayed in close contact with my successors and many of the men and women I served with originally at DHS, what has never changed is the department’s total commitment to protecting our citizens. I can say confidently that the dedication of the public servants at DHS, with all of the pressures of a still-young agency, is unmatched in our federal government.
DHS remains the epicenter of so many of our nation’s most difficult security and political challenges, and yet, the men and women of DHS continue to serve our country with integrity and without complaint. I am blessed to have served with our nation’s best, and I know that today’s DHS workers continue the tradition of selfless service to our nation.
I reach this 20-year anniversary with optimism that our department will continue to protect us from terrorists, help us recover from the challenges of nature, and deal smartly and compassionately with immigration, despite the lack of a cohesive road map.
— Tom Ridge, a twice-elected Republican governor of Pennsylvania, served as the first secretary of Homeland Security. This was written for The Philadelphia Inquirer.