The election of Joe Biden as president after a divisive campaign has been met with excitement and relief among many Department of Homeland Security employees who had been worried that the Trump administration had done long-term damage to the agency’s reputation and feared what would come in a second term.
During his four years in office, Donald Trump redefined the role of the Department of Homeland Security while instituting a series of restrictive measures unlike administrations before him. Trump banned citizens of Muslim-majority countries from coming to the US, blocked asylum protection at the border, kept asylum-seekers in Mexico, cut the number of refugees allowed in the US to a historically low level, and separated families at the border.
The torrent of policy changes, which one group estimated to number more than 400, had its effect on those who served within DHS and were told to implement the measures quickly, often without preparation or adequate training. Department leaders came and went on a regular basis, to the point where courts ruled some had been illegally appointed. Many DHS employees believed the agency had begun acting like an arm of the Trump campaign, as senior officials mimicked political talking points and declared that cities like Portland were “under siege.”
Some employees planned to quit if Trump had won reelection, while others considered their futures and whether they could withstand another four years of frantic changes to the immigration system. There were those who wondered what Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller had in mind for his second term without the prospects of reelection.
BuzzFeed News spoke with 20 DHS employees — including those from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and US Customs and Border Protection — about their reactions to the election results. The overwhelming majority were relieved and hopeful that Biden would bring a sense of stability after a tumultuous few years.
“Pure unadulterated relief,” said one DHS employee. “It gives us the opportunity to dig out from the enormously deep hole the Trump administration has dug. What we do with that opportunity remains to be seen, but thank goodness we even have the chance.”
“I hope to see DHS return to its original mission of safeguarding the nation from actual threats to our security, rather than the imagined threats among white nationalists from brown people and other immigrants,” another employee said.
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During the course of the Trump administration, federal courts have regularly blocked several immigration policies, including one that banned asylum for those who crossed the southern border without authorization. Employees often felt like they were being forced to implement policies that would later be stopped by courts, and some tried to avoid being involved.
“To me, it means that I can do my work with confidence that I won’t be asked to compromise my morals or ideals,” said one DHS employee.
“We no longer have to live with the fear of going to work everyday and being asked or told to do something that violates the laws and our Oath to the Constitution,” said another employee. “We can actually carry out our mission for the American people again.”
From the early days of the Trump administration, DHS was pushed to quickly implement a rushed policy that had been on Trump’s agenda since he recommended a ban on all Muslims in 2015. On Jan. 27, citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries were barred from entry to the US. The rollout of the policy was haphazard. At one point, then–DHS secretary John Kelly issued a statement clarifying that those with green cards could enter the country as protests raged in airports across the US.
The agency’s inspector general found that the policy was not implemented in an orderly matter.
“In our investigation, we found that CBP was caught by surprise when the President issued the [executive order] on January 27, 2017. DHS had little opportunity to prepare for and respond to basic questions about which categories of travelers were affected by the EO,” the inspector general’s 2018 report stated.
In many ways, the implementation of the travel ban was foreshadowing for an administration that often liked to push big changes quickly and without lengthy training. Longtime employees often felt their advice was ignored as senior administration officials worried about their allegiances.
“This is vindication that character and truth and facts matter. This means that the department will once again respect the expertise of career officials and take into account facts and what is in the best interest of the country when making policy decisions,” another agency employee said.
“I’m optimistic that DHS can hopefully start to repair its reputation and reverse course on the policies that led to that reputation,” one employee added. “Of course there will always be critics of the department’s mission, but it would be great if we could get to a place where the public doesn’t think we’re literally actual Nazis. I’m pretty confident that Biden will appoint someone to turn things around.”
The upcoming Biden administration will likely first focus its efforts on rolling back many controversial policies, like the Muslim ban and the cuts to asylum and refugee protections. Those within the DHS were looking forward to being a part of that change.
“I am elated. Thousands of civil servants will soon begin the job of putting the immigration system back together. It’s going to be extremely challenging, no question. But likely some of the most meaningful work I will do in my career,” one DHS employee said.
Perhaps nowhere had seen as many changes to its mission than USCIS. The agency, which was on the brink of furloughing most of its staff last year, has been at the forefront of implementing a series of cuts to asylum and work visas, while also putting in place a wealth test for those who wanted to obtain a green card. The union that represents asylum officers backed immigrant advocates in their legal efforts to block some of these changes.
“I suddenly feel like the chaos may end. There’s so much work to do to rectify the damage, but I trust that a Biden administration will not intentionally cause more hurt to immigrants, those seeking refuge, and the American people. Everything the last 4 years has felt intentional to cause maximum pain. A weight just lifted,” said one DHS employee.
“We will be able to adjudicate cases instead of looking to punish immigrants,” said another employee who planned to quit if Trump had won.
However, some employees who were disappointed in the result also accepted it as they looked forward.
“The results of the election isn’t what I wanted, but this is part of the American democratic system, which is the greatest system in the world,” said one official who backed Trump.
Other employees were hesitant about the result and wondered what Biden had planned for agencies like ICE.
Before Biden takes over, however, the Trump administration has more than two months left in charge. The agency had been planning to implement another policy aimed at restricting asylum because of the coronavirus pandemic, and some employees wondered what the agency would do next in the waning days of Trump’s presidency.
“Our long nightmare will soon be over,” one employee said before warning: “His people are not gone yet.”