July 28, 2021

From Mardi Gras to the Philippines: A Review of DHS Homeland Security Investigations


As it approaches 20 years since its creation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is due for substantial updates in order to improve its ability to adapt to current and emerging threats and maximize its strengths through its combined components and capabilities. Originally created primarily to prevent against and respond to acts of international terrorism on U.S. soil, DHS now has day-to-day responsibilities and activities that are, in some key places, out of sync with that original organizing objective, as well as with the modern threat landscape. The original proposal to create the department recognized that threats would evolve over time and that the department would need to be flexible. As that proposal, issued by President George W. Bush in 2002, stated, “The changing nature of the threats facing America requires a new government structure to protect against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons.” DHS has evolved into an organization that has a mandate to protect against a wide array of threats including but not limited to terrorism, and also as a significant federal law enforcement agency. And while law enforcement can serve a role in protecting against threats to the country’s safety and health, it has limited utility in responding to the vast landscape of modern threats. As a result, a challenge for the Biden administration and Congress moving forward is ensuring that the department—with its vast resources, workforce, and capabilities—is appropriately managed and calibrated to focus on 21st-century homeland security threats. In addition, to the extent that the department continues to manage a robust set of law enforcement activities, it must ensure that such activities are conducted with adequate policy guidance and oversight.

In particular, policymakers and legislators should take the current opportunity of new departmental leadership and renewed congressional oversight interest to refocus the department’s work in a way that maximizes its homeland security impact while ensuring appropriate oversight of its law enforcement activities. DHS houses the federal government’s largest law enforcement capacity, with approximately 80,000 law enforcement officers spread throughout the department. As a result, the department’s secretary now has responsibilities comparable to those of the U.S. attorney general, ostensibly the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, for overseeing agencies and components conducting criminal investigations. Law enforcement personnel are scattered throughout DHS, including sizeable presence in Customs and Border Protection (CBP, which houses the U.S. Border Patrol), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Secret Service, and elsewhere. In terms of investigative scope of activities, chief among DHS’s law enforcement entities is Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). HSI has more than 10,000 employees (including 7,000 agents) and operates on a budget of approximately $2 billion, one-fourth of the ICE total budget and 4 percent of the overall DHS budget of approximately $52 billion.

As a result, a challenge for the Biden administration and Congress moving forward is ensuring that the department—with its vast resources, workforce, and capabilities—is appropriately managed and calibrated to focus on 21st-century homeland security threats.

HSI is a division of ICE and, according to the fiscal year (FY) 2022 congressional budget justification, is the “principal criminal investigative agency within” DHS. The other division in ICE is Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), which is primarily responsible for enforcing immigration laws and removing individuals not authorized to be inside the United States. HSI also has responsibilities to enforce immigration laws and is the complex investigative arm of ICE. HSI claims authority and capability to investigate nearly every significant federal crime, from cybercrime to sex trafficking, from intellectual property theft to drug trafficking. According to HSI public relations materials, if it involves “the illegal movement of people or goods,” then HSI investigates it. According to a former senior HSI special agent, HSI is “the most powerful law enforcement agency in the U.S.” A letter written by current and former HSI division chiefs in 2018 stated that the agency “arrests more criminal violators than any other federal investigative agency.” Whereas HSI has demonstrated expertise in transnational criminal investigations, it faces challenges in intergovernmental relationships due to its organizational placement within ICE, and it would benefit from a reinvigorated departmental leadership focus on investigative prioritization, oversight, and transparency.

Legal Authorities

HSI agents have extremely broad authorities to investigate federal crimes. HSI legal authorities, upon which investigations are authorized, are derived from immigration law enforcement authorities previously assigned to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was a component of the Justice Department, and the U.S. Customs Service, which was previously part of the Treasury Department. The Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created DHS, “merged the investigative and enforcement elements of the former U.S. Customs Service (Customs) and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).” In 2004, former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge delegated a wide range of authorities related to immigration and law enforcement to the assistant secretary of ICE. Although HSI in its current format and division title did not exist at the time, DHS interprets the delegation as sufficient for HSI to exercise its law enforcement authorities.

HSI was created in 2010 from former ICE “Offices of Investigations, Intelligence, and International Affairs.” According to a joint review by the DHS and Department of Justice (DOJ) inspectors general, “HSI holds broad legal authority to enforce over 400 statutes” covering a wide range of crimes.

Title 19 is the section of the U.S. Code that governs customs enforcement activity. Customs officers have been responsible for interdicting stolen or smuggled goods both in the historical iteration of the Customs Service and in the DHS iteration, under the reorganized CBP component of DHS. HSI resides in ICE and uses as part of its authority Title 19 customs authorities to conduct investigations. Consistent with the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement, customs officers have had historically wide discretion to conduct warrantless searches at the border. HSI officers are authorized to use customs authorities to conduct warrantless searches. As one former HSI executive put it, “border security is critical to the nation’s security.”

Whereas HSI has demonstrated expertise in transnational criminal investigations, it faces challenges in intergovernmental relationships due to its organizational placement within ICE, and it would benefit from a reinvigorated departmental leadership focus on investigative prioritization, oversight, and transparency.

Title 8 is the section of the U.S. Code that governs immigration enforcement activity. Immigration officers—who were previously part of INS and now are part of ICE—are responsible for identifying persons in the United States illegally, arrest and removal operations, and employer worksite immigration enforcement. Immigration officers, including “special agents” are authorized to also “patrol the border” (Homeland Security Act (HSA) Section 287(a)(3)), make arrests for immigration violations (HSA 287(a)(2)), make arrests “for felonies regulating the admission or removal of aliens” (HSA 287(a)(4)), make arrests “for any offense against the United States” (HSA 287(a)(5)(A)), make arrests “for any felony,” “conduct searches” (HSA 287(c)), “execute warrants” (HSA 287(a)), and “exercise the power to execute warrants of criminal arrests for non-immigration violations issued under the authority of the United States.”

DHS appears to consider a broad array of violations of federal law to be within HSI’s mission. Criminal law enforcement efforts that protect children from sexual exploitation, protect citizens from transnational gangs, protect intellectual property, and protect the economy and businesses from financial crime have all been interpreted by the department to be within HSI’s authority to investigate. According to an HSI training slide released pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act in 2014, HSI, through its legacy customs officer authorities, in particular, interprets its authorities as a mandate to investigate “any federal crime.”

The scope of complex criminal investigative activities is arguably out of alignment with the department’s core statutory mission, as well as its budget authorizations. As discussed in greater detail in the May 2020 report published by the Center for a New American Security, “Reforming the Department of Homeland Security Through Enhanced Oversight and Accountability,” three of the seven provisions constituting the department’s core statutory mission pertain directly to terrorism. The seventh, which pertains to drug trafficking, concerns primarily the intersection of drug trafficking with terrorism. The department’s core statutory mission does not identify criminal investigation as a central component of the department’s mission, nor was law enforcement and investigations the motivating factor in creating the department. In contrast, the Justice Department is charged with the primary responsibility to prosecute crimes. Accordingly, most other major federal investigative agencies or bureaus—the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)—reside within the Justice Department. And when DHS was created, responsibility for the investigation of terrorism-related crimes was expressly reserved for the FBI. Some informed observers assess that HSI, which never had authority to conduct terrorism investigations, carved out areas of investigative opportunity that other agencies were not addressing, as a result of those agencies’ other priorities. As the Biden administration considers how to modernize DHS to best capitalize on its strengths and ensure that law enforcement activities are subject to appropriate oversight and accountability, consideration for updating HSI's organizational structure and prioritization is appropriate, as discussed further below.

HSI Investigations Snapshot

HSI investigations cover a broad array of criminal violations. According to a current HSI senior official, HSI’s strength resides in its competency in investigating violations of federal criminal law that have a transnational nexus. Transnational criminal investigations take advantage of the division’s ability to leverage its border and immigration authorities. The exercise of those authorities, in connection with leveraging its international partnerships, has produced success at pursuing crimes of victimization that have a transnational aspect.

To an outside observer, some areas of HSI focus and engagement are more persuasive as being an integral part of a homeland security mission than others. There are a range of HSI investigative initiatives—from sex trafficking to counterfeit merchandise—that are clearly valid and important law enforcement objectives. Some of these, however, are less relevant to protecting against major homeland security threats facing the country. For example, in 2020, Mardi Gras in New Orleans was designated a special event assessment rating (SEAR)-2 event; the status enabled the HSI special agent in charge (SAC) to provide federal agents and resources, such as mobile command centers and access to a special response team (SRT), if needed, to state and local partners. In addition to providing that physical security response, HSI placed significant emphasis on the disruption of human or sex trafficking activity surrounding the event. HSI investigative activity surrounding another major annual national event, the 2021 Super Bowl, included a significant disruption of counterfeit sports merchandise. HSI leads the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center), which coordinates interagency and private-sector partners in disrupting counterfeit activity.

Human and drug trafficking are issues where HSI’s international partnerships, immigration and customs authorities, and focus on crimes of victimization come together for a substantial area of investigative activities. These activities have ranged from training Philippine law enforcement counterparts to participating in a multi-agency international investigation leading to the arrest and conviction of notorious Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

To provide a snapshot of HSI areas of priority investigation, the authors conducted a six-month review of press releases for HSI investigations, dated July 1, 2020, through December 31, 2020. Case summaries were reviewed on the basis of publicly available information from DHS’s ICE and DOJ’s websites. The authors analyzed press releases from ICE and DOJ during the six-month period and identified 178 relevant press releases—157 from ICE and 21 from DOJ.

The authors note up front that using press releases as a basis for this case snapshot is intended to provide only a general overview of HSI activities, and that press releases do not provide precise measurements of all investigative activity during this period. For example, press releases generally do not include information about ongoing investigations that have not reached the arrest or prosecution stages. They also do not include all investigations where HSI supported other agencies. Moreover, the public releases appear to de-emphasize the immigration enforcement work engaged in by HSI in conjunction with its ICE counterpart, ERO. Finally, 2020 investigations and reporting may have been inconsistent with prior years’, given the operational and/or administrative effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The use of press releases is, however, a useful reference point for a summary assessment. For a full explanation of the methodology used, see Appendix II.

Both the ICE and DOJ websites categorized press releases based on the type of the HSI investigations. The categories used in this paper to classify the types of HSI investigations include:

  • Child Exploitation
  • Contraband
  • Counter Proliferation Investigation Unit
  • COVID-19
  • Cultural Property, Arts, and Antiquities Investigations
  • Cyber Crimes
  • Document and Benefit Fraud
  • Enforcement and Removal
  • Financial Crimes
  • Firearms, Ammunition, and Explosives
  • Human Rights Violators
  • Human Smuggling/Trafficking
  • Intellectual Property Rights and Commercial Fraud
  • Narcotics
  • National Security
  • Operational
  • Transnational Gangs
  • Worksite Enforcement

In some instances, the categories provided by the ICE or DOJ websites did not fully capture the issue areas of the investigation, so the authors examined each press release and determined if it should be included in more than one category; some press releases were allotted to multiple categories. This method resulted in the 178 press releases being counted as 238 for purposes of categorization. The graph below depicts the categories and the numbers of investigations in each.

Publicly Announced Homeland Security Investigations Cases from July 1 to December 31, 2020

The graph shows the types of cases that HSI investigated and announced publicly, as determined through ICE and DOJ press releases. Some press releases were counted more than once if their investigations involved multiple categories of criminal violations. (Based on press releases from ICE and DOJ)

Of the 238 categories counted from the press releases during the six-month period, the vast majority were child exploitation and narcotics cases. These two categories accounted for 36 percent of the overall investigations reported—including arrests, charges, and prosecutions—during this time. In contrast, the six categories with the fewest publicly announced investigations—worksite enforcement; counter proliferation investigation unit; human rights violators; cultural property, arts, and antiquities investigations; operational; and transnational gangs—together accounted for just under 8 percent of categorized investigations.

The nine reported investigations described as falling in the national security category involved weapons-smuggling networks and weapons information theft, drive-by shootings, terrorist financing, and North Korean and Iranian sanction evasion.

Every federal crime that has a transnational nexus is not necessarily a matter of national or homeland security.

There is some lack of consistency between the division’s activities as presented in the most recent budget justification, which includes discussion of “enforcement-related actions against employers that violate immigration-related employment laws,” and the investigative activities HSI emphasizes in its public relations communications. Whereas HSI public-facing materials focus on crimes of victimization, the department’s budget justification states that “[i]n FY2020, the ICE HSI worksite enforcement program initiated 4,326 new investigations and conducted 3,903 Form I-9 inspections that resulted in 1,001 arrests… HSI’s worksite enforcement strategy focuses on protecting the United States’ critical infrastructure, reducing the demand for illegal employment, and protecting employment opportunities for the lawful workforce.” Accordingly, despite what may be HSI workforce preference for conducting investigations for which citizenship is irrelevant, the reality of the division’s day-to-day work, as reflected in the budget justification, is that HSI continues to be engaged in immigration enforcement work at the direction of component or departmental leadership objectives. A similar disconnect between the public-facing reporting and the day-to-day activities appears with respect to HSI investigation of gang activity, about which the budget justification states, “In FY 2020, HSI made 3,671 criminal arrests and 316 administrative arrests of gang members.”

In addition, while HSI frames its public messaging to characterize such crimes as intellectual property theft and child exploitation as falling into its mission to protect the homeland, these types of criminal violations—while extremely important—arguably stretch concepts of homeland security beyond a recognized conceptual framework. Such a broad interpretation of an investigative mandate brings into question the usefulness of designating certain threats to citizens’ security and safety as homeland security issues. Every federal crime that has a transnational nexus is not necessarily a matter of national or homeland security. A narrower interpretation of areas of HSI enforcement could: (1) avoid duplication and overlap with other federal investigative agencies, thereby maximizing time and resources; (2) free up personnel to address core DHS mission areas; and (3) focus DHS leadership attention on core DHS mission areas.


To improve both the quality of HSI’s work and its reputation among overseers, stakeholders, and partners, division leadership should pay attention to bolstering oversight and morale. From an outside observer’s perspective, the overemphasis on HSI’s promotional public-facing materials and lack of substantive information about its guidelines, policies, and procedures contribute to a lack of understanding about how the division operates, as well as how, as one of the largest investigative law enforcement components of the federal government, it holds its agents and operators accountable.

Oversight and Accountability

HSI regional division leaders—the SACs—have a significant degree of autonomy and independence in setting priorities and guiding investigations in their areas of responsibility. Although HSI investigative activities are generally organized into five categories—cyber and financial, exploitation and victimization, public safety, global trade, and national security and counterterrorism—they are extremely broad categories, and the department does not articulate how they are prioritized. Currently, there is no institutional mechanism for the DHS secretary to set investigative priorities for HSI. Although the secretary has the authority to do so, there are not sufficient institutional formalized reporting structures to facilitate that level of direction and control. As a result, the oversight and attention that HSI activities garner at the secretary level are intensely personality driven, with some former DHS leadership teams having taken a substantial interest in HSI activities and others not. Depending on the interest level of any particular DHS team, HSI investigative activities can be decentralized, with local and regional priorities set by SACs who operate divisions with a high degree of autonomy. The current decentralization of investigative priorities at the field level is reminiscent of a pre-9/11 FBI. In that instance, it took the attacks of September 11, 2001, to lead the FBI director to adopt a more headquarters-driven model of priority setting.

While current and former HSI officials assess that outside scrutiny is primarily motivated by the connection to the department’s immigration enforcement functions, from an outside observer’s perspective, a lack of transparency about HSI guidelines and practices also contributes to negative perceptions. Within the department, HSI is subject to oversight by the inspector general and by the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility, which is staffed by HSI agents assigned to that office. HSI’s investigative activities are arguably not subject to adequate oversight, given the complexity of the investigations it conducts and the associated implications for civil liberties and privacy. HSI’s reputation and credibility among outside stakeholders would be improved by greater transparency about its guidelines, policies, and oversight.

The nature of HSI’s work also suggests that it should have oversight structures within the department that are appropriate for its mission and activities. Much of modern law enforcement requires the use of complex technologies, such as analytic tools to mine large datasets, facial recognition technologies, and surveillance tools. These technologies can provide valuable assistance to investigators—but they also involve complex sets of legal and privacy considerations. Moreover, federal (and state) law enforcement agencies increasingly turn to private-sector third parties that collect, retain, and analyze large datasets of individuals’ information. For example, news reports have described HSI’s contracting relationship with a company that provides software enabling large-scale analytic capability across datasets. HSI’s current position within ICE appears as though it may allow for a sharing or availability of technical resources across HSI and ICE; this fluidity could create challenges in ensuring that information is used in line with a specific authorized purpose, with accompanying oversight and accountability.

Congressional oversight of HSI also may be somewhat obscured by the division’s position within ICE. Substantive oversight of ICE is more focused on the immigration issues under the purview of ERO. In addition, HSI’s budget is currently tied to those of ERO and ICE. HSI, which conducts traditional law enforcement activity, is currently subject to oversight by the homeland security committees; it is not routinely subject to oversight of the congressional judiciary committees, which are the committees that often conduct oversight at the intersection of investigations, surveillance, and the legal process using third-party information, although a joint inspector general report on deconfliction was completed at the request of judiciary committee leadership.

Morale and Effectiveness

From the HSI perspective, the primary impediment to HSI’s ability to perform its work effectively is its organizational attachment to ERO and the reputational issues that accompany the persistent corrosive political debate surrounding immigration. In 2018, 19 HSI SACs sent a letter to then-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen requesting that HSI be decoupled from ERO and ICE. The agents argued that “the two ICE sub-agencies [ERO and HSI] have become so specialized and independent that ICE’s mission can no longer be described as a singular synergistic mission…” As the SACs’ letter indicates, the precursor to HSI was the ICE Office of Investigations, which “had oversight of programs that supported ICE’s investigative and enforcement priorities…” But HSI investigations include those that go beyond supporting ICE enforcement activities. Some HSI agents believe that HSI has created an internationally recognized brand and that association with ICE not only tarnishes that brand but, most critically, has a detrimental practical impact on its ability to do its work. For example, as cities adopt regulations preventing cooperation with ICE, HSI cooperation with local law enforcement is affected. As one former HSI executive explained, “the investigation piece is poisoned by immigration” and the intense political issues surrounding it. There is a strong argument to be made that separating HSI from ICE would remove the operational challenges experienced by HSI when working with state and local partners, even on criminal investigations unrelated to immigration, such as child exploitation or gang homicide investigations.

Challenges to HSI’s effectiveness go beyond its organizational link with ERO, however. A 2019 joint investigation by the inspectors general of DHS and DOJ found that over one-third of surveyed agents from each agency on the southern border reported that “cooperation failures” between the agencies negatively affected operations. The report found that unclear policies at both DHS and DOJ contributed to confusion about areas of overlapping jurisdiction and to competing missions and operations. And morale at DHS overall, according to a 2020 survey, is at rock bottom, with the department coming in last when ranked against other large federal agencies. ICE ranks sixth out of 16 agencies within DHS, and 315th out of 411 agencies across the federal government.

Recommendations for Reform

Given the nature of HSI activities in the context of the DHS mission, and the challenges in morale, effectiveness, oversight, and accountability, as described above, the executive branch and Congress should explore paths to place HSI on stronger long-term footing. To depart from the status quo, the authors propose two alternative options for reform:

Remain and refocus: In the more modest of the two proposed options, HSI would retain its current organizational structure but would be subject to greater headquarters-driven prioritization and oversight.

Accordingly, the DHS secretary should direct the development of:

  • a formal policy that sets investigative priorities for HSI, consistent with national policy priorities, departmental priorities, and the domestic and international threat landscape;
  • a joint review, in collaboration with the attorney general, of overlapping areas of investigation among the law enforcement components of DHS and DOJ, and a resultant memorandum of agreement to reduce overlap and redundancy, particularly in the areas of transnational criminal investigation, intellectual property, child exploitation, narcotics, and financial crime; and
  • an internal organizational mechanism requiring major cases and enforcement activity, to be briefed regularly to the secretary and/or deputy secretary.

To improve and institutionalize oversight over HSI activities, Congress should:

  • legislate a requirement for the DHS secretary to develop and issue updated investigative guidelines, to be made publicly available, in consultation with the attorney general;
  • implement reporting requirements on HSI use of surveillance technologies and associated policies, implementation, and oversight; and
  • conduct further oversight in connection with budget authorizations to ensure that departmental investigative priorities are in sync with bona fide issues of homeland security, and that resources are not diverted to law enforcement activities that generate cases and prosecutions, but are tethered to actual threats to the health, safety, and security of the American public.

Separate and streamline: In this option, policymakers would adopt all of the recommendations above, and, in addition, Congress would establish HSI as a stand-alone investigative entity within DHS, separating it from ERO. A separated HSI should be led by a Senate-confirmed official, as is the case with HSI’s peer organizations at DOJ, such as the FBI, DEA, and ATF. The primary benefit of this option would be that HSI would remain the investigative arm of the department with its current authorities and capacity but would no longer be associated by law enforcement partners and the public with ERO’s immigration enforcement activities. With a renewed emphasis on prioritization, this new HSI would be a more focused entity that could build on core competencies while providing greater bureaucratic distance between immigration enforcement and investigations that are unrelated to immigration status or enforcement. Separation would also likely facilitate more focused oversight attention on HSI activities, specifically by internal and external overseers, including Congress.


Although the department was created to proactively protect the country from terrorism and other homeland security threats, DHS has grown into the federal government department with the largest law enforcement force. Its primary investigative arm, HSI, has over the past decade arguably expanded its activities beyond those that support the department’s component and mission, and now serves as a complex criminal investigative agency with global reach. This report provides two options for policy consideration as the new administration and Congress consider reforms to modernize the department.

Appendix I: DHS Homeland Security Investigations Organizational Overview

This brief organizational overview of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is intended to provide additional context to the narrative and recommendations in this report. It briefly describes HSI’s organizational structure, budget and personnel, and priority mission areas, and the mechanism for congressional oversight of the agency.

Leadership and Organizational Structure: HSI is part of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE is led by a director, who is a Senate-confirmed official and reports directly to the DHS secretary. HSI is led by an executive associate director, who reports to the director of ICE. HSI has eight divisions: Domestic Operations, Intelligence, International Operations, Investigative Programs, Mission Support, National IPR Co-ordination Center, National Security Investigations, and Operational Technology and Cyber Division.

Budget and Personnel: In FY2021, HSI received $2.1 billion of ICE’s $8.3 billion budget. In the FY2022 budget, the Biden administration is requesting the addition of 49 full-time employees and an increase in HSI’s budget of $28.9 million. HSI’s main focus is on domestic investigations. In FY2021, 7,905 of its 8,551 full-time employees operated under “Domestic Investigations,” and of the $2.1 billion HSI received, $1.8 billion was for domestic investigations, $186.6 million for international operations, and $98.1 million for intelligence.

Priority Mission Areas: ICE’s congressional budget justification establishes the main goals of HSI’s budget activities as preventing terrorism and protecting the homeland; preventing illicit trade, travel, and finance; and preventing the unlawful exploitation of the nation’s people by violators of immigration law. It also outlines the key issues that HSI plans to focus on in FY2021: combating the opioid crisis, gang investigations, worksite enforcement, and innovation and optimization of operational support.

Congressional Oversight: The House Committee on Homeland Security and Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (HSGAC) are the main committees with oversight of DHS. HSGAC holds hearings and confirms nominees for the position of director of ICE.

Appendix II: Methodology

The snapshot of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) created by the authors covers July 1, 2020, through December 31, 2020. It was created using only publicly available information from the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Department of Justice (DOJ) websites. Because only publicly available information was used, the snapshot may have omitted some investigations by HSI during the timeframe, particularly national security–related cases that may contain sensitive or classified information. In addition, press releases do not include information about ongoing investigations that have not reached the arrest or prosecution stages, nor do they include all investigations where HSI supported other agencies. The press releases do, however, provide a useful reference point to provide a summary assessment.

To find HSI investigations, the authors searched both ICE and DOJ press releases. The search was tailored by filtering press releases by date and by using keyword searches for “Homeland Security Investigations” and “HSI.” The authors then examined each press release in the search results and ascertained if it was about a case HSI had investigated. Those that were determined relevant were included in the snapshot.

Once all the press releases were gathered, they were filtered further by removing any that discussed the same case as an earlier press release. For example, ICE published one press release in August 2020 about the arrest of someone and a second press release in September about charges against that person. Both these press releases were in reference to the same HSI investigation, so only one was included in the snapshot. In addition, if the same press release was cross-posted on both ICE and DOJ’s website, it was only included once. The results were compiled and organized by department. There were 157 press releases from ICE’s website and 21 from the DOJ’s website.

The press releases were then further broken down based on how the ICE and DOJ websites categorized the type of the HSI investigation.

The ICE categories included:

  • Child Exploitation
  • Contraband
  • Counter Proliferation Investigation Unit
  • COVID-19
  • Cultural Property, Arts, and Antiquities Investigations
  • Cyber Crimes
  • Document and Benefit Fraud
  • Enforcement and Removal
  • Financial Crimes
  • Firearms, Ammunition, and Explosives
  • Human Rights Violators
  • Human Smuggling/Trafficking
  • Intellectual Property Rights and Commercial Fraud
  • Narcotics
  • National Security
  • Operational
  • Transnational Gangs
  • Worksite Enforcement

The DOJ categories included:

  • Asset Forfeiture
  • Civil Rights
  • Consumer Protection
  • Coronavirus
  • Counterintelligence and Export Control
  • Counterterrorism
  • Cyber Crime
  • Disaster Fraud
  • Drug Trafficking
  • Financial Fraud
  • Foreign Corruption
  • Human Smuggling
  • Human Trafficking
  • Identity Theft
  • National Security
  • Project Safe Childhood
  • Securities, Commodities, and Investment Fraud
  • Violent Crime

To better compare types of investigations, the authors analyzed each DOJ press release and assigned it to the ICE press release categories; all categories listed used in this paper reflect the ICE list. In some instances, a single category did not fully capture the issue areas of the investigation, so the authors examined each press release and determined if additional categories should be marked. As a result, a single press release may be classified in multiple categories.

About the Authors

Carrie F. Cordero is the Robert M. Gates senior fellow and general counsel at CNAS. Her research and writing interests focus on the intersection of law and national security, democracy and rule of law, intelligence community oversight, transparency, surveillance, cybersecurity, and related national and homeland security law and policy issues. She is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law and a CNN legal and national security analyst. Ms. Cordero spent the first part of her career in public service, including as counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security; senior associate general counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; and attorney advisor at the U.S. Department of Justice, during which time she handled critical counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations and appeared frequently before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. At the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, she worked extensively on developing policies, procedures, and processes related to oversight, compliance, and protection of privacy and civil liberties in the context of government national security investigations and intelligence activities. She also served as a special assistant United States attorney. After leaving government service, Ms. Cordero was the director of national security studies at Georgetown Law and was in private practice, handling matters related to surveillance, law enforcement response, security, and privacy. She has testified before the U.S. Congress on surveillance reform and foreign influence on democratic institutions. Ms. Cordero earned her JD, cum laude, from Washington College of Law, American University, and her BA, magna cum laude, from Barnard College, Columbia University. Twitter: @carriecordero

Katie Galgano is a research assistant with the executive team at CNAS. Her research focuses on democracy and the rule of law and homeland security. Prior to joining CNAS, Katie interned with the Twenty First Century Group. She also interned with the U.S. Department of State in the Office of Global Women’s Issues and in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. Katie graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Baylor University with a BA in international studies. Twitter: @GalganoKatie


The authors thank the participants in a virtual roundtable of former Department of Homeland Security officials and other homeland security academic and policy experts held in May 2021. The authors are also grateful for the expert review and comments provided to earlier drafts of this paper by John Dermody and Faiza Patel. We are grateful to the current and former Homeland Security Investigations special agents and executives who were interviewed as part of the research supporting this paper. Thanks also go to the CNAS publications team for editing and design. This briefing paper and the ongoing research project are made possible by the generous support of Democracy Fund.

  1. George W. B­­­­ush, The Department of Homeland Security, (June 2002), https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/book_0.pdf.
  2. Nick Miroff and Maria Sachetti, “Biden administration reins in street-level enforcement by ICE as officials try to refocus agency mission,” The Washington Post, May 25, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/ice-street-arrests-immigrants-fall-biden/2021/05/25/58681782-b972-11eb-bb84-6b92dedcd8ed_story.html; Chad Wolf, “Prepared Remarks for Acting Secretary Wolf Addressing the Fraternal Order of Police,” Department of Homeland Security (September 4, 2020), https://www.dhs.gov/news/2020/09/04/prepared-remarks-acting-secretary-wolf-addressing-fraternal-order-police.
  3. At its creation, DHS assumed the statutory authorities and operational responsibilities of the components that were combined to create it. See 6 U.S.C. § 111, “Executive Department—Mission,” (b)(1)(d)-(e). See also, Testimony of Acting Inspector General John V. Kelly, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, February 7, 2018, https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Testimony-Kelly-2018-02-07.pdf.
  4. 18 U.S.C. § 4102, “Authority of the Attorney General.”
  5. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview, Fiscal Year 2022 Congressional Justification (2021), ICE-5, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/u.s._immigration_and_customs_enforcement.pdf.
  6. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview, Fiscal Year 2022 Congressional Justification, ICE-5.
  7. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “Homeland Security Investigations,” https://www.ice.gov/about-ice/homeland-security-investigations.
  8. Author interview with former HSI senior official.
  9. Letter from 19 special agents in charge to Secretary Kirstjen Neilsen regarding HSI (undated), available at Jason Buch, “ICE Criminal Investigators Ask to Be Distanced from Detentions, Deportations in Letter to Kirstjen Nielsen,” The Texas Observer, June 27, 2018, https://www.texasobserver.org/ice-hsi-letter-kirstjen-nielsen-criminal-civil-deportation-zero-tolerance/.
  10. Public Law 107-296, Homeland Security Act of 2002, November 25, 2002.
  11. U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, A Joint Review of Law Enforcement Cooperation on the Southwest Border between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security Investigations, OIG-19-57 (July 31, 2019) 4, https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2019-08/OIG-19-57-Jul19.pdf.
  12. It is beyond the scope of this policy paper to provide a definitive legal assessment of whether the 2004 delegation provides sufficient support for HSI’s current investigative activities; however, such an assessment is a potential area for further scholarly research and analysis.
  13. U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, A Joint Review of Law Enforcement Cooperation on the Southwest Border.
  14. U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, A Joint Review of Law Enforcement Cooperation on the Southwest Border.
  15. See 19 U.S.C. § 482, “Search of vehicles and persons,” and § 1401, “Miscellaneous.”
  16. Author interview with former HSI executive associate director.
  17. 8 C.F.R. 287.5, “Exercise of power by immigration officers” (see for authority: 8 U.S.C.§ 1103 “Powers and duties of the Secretary, the Under Secretary, and the Attorney General”; 8 U.S.C. § 1182, “Inadmissible Aliens”; 8 U.S.C. § 1225, “Inspection by immigration officers; expedited removal of inadmissible arriving aliens; referral for hearing”; 8 U.S.C. § 1226, “Apprehension and detention of aliens”; 8 U.S.C 1251, “Transferred § 1227”; 8 U.S.C. § 1252, “Judicial review of orders of removal”; ­­­8 U.S.C. § 1357, “Powers of immigration officers and employees”; and Public Law 107–296, Homeland Security Act of 2002, November 25, 2002.
  18. 8 C.F.R. 287.5, “Exercise of power by immigration officers.”
  19. Todd Feathers, “The most powerful agency you’ve never heard of: Homeland Security Investigations,” April 22, 2014, Muckrock, https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2014/apr/22/operation-cornerstone-training-slides/; see also 19 U.S.C. § 1589(a), “Enforcement authority of customs officers.”
  20. Carrie Cordero, “Reforming the Department of Homeland Security Through Enhanced Oversight & Accountability,” (Center for a New American Security, May 2020), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/reforming-the-department-of-homeland-security-through-enhanced-oversight-accountability.
  21. For a recommendation and proposed text to modernize the department’s statutory mission, see Cordero, “Reforming the Department of Homeland Security Through Enhanced Oversight & Accountability.”
  22. The Secret Service, also part of DHS, also conducts cyber-criminal investigations.
  23. Center for a New American Security Expert Roundtable Discussion, May 2020.
  24. Author interview with HSI senior official.
  25. Author interview with HSI senior official.
  26. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “HSI At Mardi Gras,” https://www.ice.gov/features/HSIatMardiGras.
  27. Luke Barr, “Homeland Security busts $44 million worth of counterfeit sports goods ahead of Super Bowl LV,” ABC News, February 3, 2021, https://abcnews.go.com/Sports/homeland-security-busts-44-million-worth-counterfeit-sports/story?id=75660006.
  28. U.S. Embassy in the Philippines, “Fact Sheet: U.S. Embassy in the Philippines Partners to Combat Trafficking in Persons,” https://ph.usembassy.gov/fact-sheet-us-embassy-in-the-philippines-partners-to-combat-trafficking-in-persons/.
  29. Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, Sinaloa Cartel leader, sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years,” U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, press release, July 17, 2019, https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2019/07/17/joaquin-el-chapo-guzman-sinaloa-cartel-leader-sentenced-life-prison-plus.
  30. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, “News Releases,” https://www.ice.gov/newsroom?field_news_release_topics_tag_target_id=All&field_field_location_administrative_area=All&field_published_date_value%5Bmin%5D=07%2F01%2F2020&field_published_date_value%5Bmax%5D=12%2F31%2F2020&combine=homeland+security+investigations&field_field_location_country_code=All.
  31. The U.S. Department of Justice, “Justice News,” https://www.justice.gov/news?keys=homeland%20security%20investigations&items_per_page=25&f%5B0%5D=field_pr_date%3A2020.
  32. “Civilian navy engineer, 3 others arrested on federal charges of theft, sale of government-owned technical information,” U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement, press release, September 2, 2020, https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/civilian-navy-engineer-3-others-arrested-federal-charges-theft-sale-government-owned; “US files complaint to forfeit Iranian missiles and sells previously transferred Iranian petroleum,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, press release, October 30, 2020, https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/us-files-complaint-forfeit-iranian-missiles-and-sells-previously-transferred-iranian.
  33. “ICE joins local law enforcement in drive-by shooting investigation,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, press release, September 30, 2020, https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/ice-joins-local-law-enforcement-drive-shooting-investigation.
  34. “Warrant and complaint seek seizure of all Iranian gasoil aboard 4 tankers headed to Venezuela based on connection to IRCG,” U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, press release, July 2, 2020, https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/warrant-and-complaint-seek-seizure-all-iranian-gasoil-aboard-4-tankers-headed; “Global disruption of 3 terror finance cyber-enabled campaigns,” U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, press release, August 13, 2020, https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/global-disruption-3-terror-finance-cyber-enabled-campaigns; and “U.S. Seizure of Three Websites Used by Iranian Front Company that Was Shipping Fuel of Four Tankers to Venezuela,” U.S. Department of Justice, press release, August 28, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/us-seizure-three-websites-used-iranian-front-company-was-shipping-fuel-four-tankers-venezuela.
  35. “United States Files Complaint to Forfeit More Than $2.37 Million From Companies Accused of Laundering Funds to Benefit Sanctioned North Korean Entities,” U.S. Department of Justice, press release, July 23, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/united-states-files-complaint-forfeit-more-237-million-companies-accused-laundering-funds; “Company Pleads Guilty to Money Laundering Violation as Part of Scheme to Circumvent North Korean Sanctions and Deceive Banks, Agrees to Pay Forfeiture and Fine,” U.S. Department of Justice, press release, August 31, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/company-pleads-guilty-money-laundering-violation-part-scheme-circumvent-north-korean; and “Taiwan Individual and International Business Organizations Charged with Criminal Conspiracy to Violate Iranian Sanctions,” U.S. Department of Justice, press release, November 10, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/taiwan-individual-and-international-business-organizations-charged-criminal-conspiracy.
  36. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview: Fiscal Year 2022 Congressional Justification, 81.
  37. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview: Fiscal Year 2022 Congressional Justification, 80.
  38. “HSI El Paso, CBP seize more than $100k in counterfeit NFL, other sports merchandise,” KFOX14, February 10, 2021, https://kfoxtv.com/news/local/hsi-el-paso-cbp-seize-more-than-100k-in-counterfeit-nfl-other-sports-merchandise.
  39. “ICE HSI, international law enforcement partners arrest over 85 in Operation Protected Childhood 8,” U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, press release, June 15, 2021, https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/ice-hsi-international-law-enforcement-partners-arrest-over-85-operation-protected.
  40. While there is no one universally accepted definition of homeland security, DHS is generally organized around five categories, as discussed in Carrie Cordero, “Reforming the Department of Homeland Security Through Enhanced Oversight & Accountability”: “(1) border protection and transportation security, (2) immigration system administration and enforcement; (3) cyber and infrastructure protection; (4) disaster preparedness and response; and (5) protection against chemical biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive threats or activities.” Chappell Lawson and Alan Bersin articulate the homeland security mission set slightly differently: “border management and security (air, land and sea); (2) immigration; (3) transportation security, particularly aviation; (4) disaster relief and response; and (5) the protection of critical civilian facilities, systems and individuals.” Chappell Lawson and Alan Bersin, “Homeland Security Comes of Age,” in Beyond 9/11: Homeland Security for the Twenty-First Century, eds. Chappell Lawson, Alan Bersin, and Juliette N. Kayyem (Cambridge and London: Belfer Center Studies in International Security, 2020), 4.
  41. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “Ensuring Public Safety Tops HSI’s Mission at Super Bowl LV,” https://www.ice.gov/features/superbowl55.
  42. Eoin Higgins, “ICE Doesn’t Want You To Read Its Manuals—For No Good Reason Whatsoever,” The Intercept, April 18, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/04/18/ice-hsi-special-agent-training-manuals/.
  43. Homeland Security Investigations, Homeland Security Investigations: Securing the Homeland From Transnational Threats and Criminal Organizations, (2020), 6, https://irp-cdn.multiscreensite.com/cadac795/files/uploaded/HSI%20Overview%202020%20as%20of%202_17_2021.pdf)
  44. CNAS expert roundtable discussion, May 2021.
  45. Author interview with former HSI executive associate director.
  46. Author interview with HSI senior official.
  47. In May 2020, the Associated Press published a story based on an investigation by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication revealing that HSI agents “paid for and engaged in sex acts with suspected” sex trafficking victims. See MacKenzie Shuman, Molly Duerig, Grace Oldham, Rachel Gold, Meagan Sainz-Pasley, Mythili Gubbi, Alejandra Gamez, Beno Thomas, and James Paidoussis, “Documents: Federal agents engaged in sex acts with victims,” Associated Press, May 11, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/nv-state-wire-police-us-news-az-state-wire-ca-state-wire-1c86224532d2ab314fe0f245bdce62b9.
  48. Douglas MacMillan and Elizabeth Dwoskin, “The war inside Palantir: Data-mining firm’s ties to ICE under attack by employees,” The Washington Post, August 22, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/08/22/war-inside-palantir-data-mining-firms-ties-ice-under-attack-by-employees/; Spencer Woodman, "Palantir provides the engine for Donald Trump's deportation machine," The Intercept, March 2, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/03/02/palantir-provides-the-engine-for-donald-trumps-deportation-machine/. The authors note that Palantir is an institutional financial supporter of CNAS. Palantir is not a financial sponsor of this report, nor of the DHS Oversight & Accountability project. This report and project are supported by a philanthropic foundation.
  49. Letter from 19 special agents in charge to Secretary Kirstjen Neilsen regarding HSI.
  50. U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, A Joint Review of Law Enforcement Cooperation on the Southwest Border.
  51. Letter from 19 special agents in charge to Secretary Kirstjen Neilsen regarding HSI.
  52. Author interview with former HSI senior official; and Letter from 19 Special agents in charge to Secretary Kirstjen Neilsen regarding HSI.
  53. Author interview with HSI senior official.
  54. U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, A Joint Review of Law Enforcement Cooperation on the Southwest Border. (Note that the review was conducted at the request of congressional overseers, not the homeland security committees—specifically, a request in February 2016 from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform.)
  55. Partnership for Public Service, “2020 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings,” https://bestplacestowork.org/rankings/?view=overall&size=large&category=leadership&.
  56. Partnership for Public Service, “2020 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.”
  57. A third option exists, but it is not recommended in this policy brief because the authors assess that it is not politically feasible at this time. That option would involve Congress removing most HSI investigative activity and personnel and transferring them to an agency that would be newly created in the Justice Department, which could be named Transnational Criminal Investigations (TCI). In order to retain effectiveness in these types of investigations, the new agency would need to be granted specific authorities related to customs and immigration investigations. The benefits of this option are that TCI would reside in the department traditionally home to federal criminal investigations and the accompanying prosecutions, the Justice Department. The new agency would be able to retain and transition its existing attachés abroad. The creation of TCI would likely enable the attorney general to more effectively manage its operations in parallel with the FBI, DEA, and ATF, reducing redundancies among overlapping investigative activities and providing overall oversight and supervision to these agencies’ comprehensive federal criminal investigations. Should the administration and/or Congress express an interest in considering this option as a means of recalibrating DHS activities away from its heavy law enforcement posture, a more detailed policy brief on how to effectuate the creation of the new agency could be an area for further research.
  58. Department of Homeland Security, “Order of Ceremonial Precedence for DHS Positions” 252-16 (April 14, 2017), https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/mgmt/human-resources/mgmt-dir_252-16-order-ceremonial-precedence-dhs-positions_rev-00.pdf.
  59. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “Leadership,” https://www.ice.gov/leadership/organizational-structure.
  60. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview: Fiscal Year 2022 Congressional Justification 6 and 58.
  61. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview: Fiscal Year 2022 Congressional Justification, 58.
  62. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview: Fiscal Year 2022 Congressional Justification, 58.
  63. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview: Fiscal Year 2022 Congressional Justification, 99.
  64. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview: Fiscal Year 2022 Congressional Justification, 105.
  65. It was rare that HSI was the sole agency investigating a case. In most circumstances, HSI was partnering with at least one other federal, state, or local agency on an investigation. Examples of partner agencies include but are not limited to the FBI, DEA, the IRS, and CBP, as well as national task forces, attorney’s offices, and sheriff and police departments.
  66. Not all of the DOJ press releases were cross-posted on the ICE website. Although there may be many reasons for this, one important explanation is that the corresponding ICE press release may have fallen outside of the time frame used in the snapshot. For example, ICE may have published a press release at the time of arrest whereas DOJ published one at the time of sentencing, and either of these events may have occurred outside the six-month time frame being used to create the snapshot.


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