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What Is Homeland Security in the U.S.?

December 8, 2019

After the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, which took nearly 3,000 human lives, damaged critical infrastructure and shook the nation’s peace of mind, the U.S. Congress passed the Homeland Security Act. This piece of legislation set out to quell the palpable fear across the country and establish homeland security. What is homeland security? Homeland security’s mission is to stop terrorism, safeguard borders, enforce immigration laws, prevent cyberthreats, and respond to emergencies and disasters.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a cabinet department comprising numerous federal agencies, is tasked with addressing the threats to the country, whether online, at our borders or in our airports. Keeping the U.S. safe from both human-made and natural disasters requires collaboration and coordination at all levels of government, as well as comprehensive prevention, preparedness and response efforts.

Those inspired to take up the vital mission of protecting the nation from long-standing and emerging threats can serve in a variety of capacities, including law enforcement, federal emergency management, and intelligence and analysis. Securing a position in homeland security requires the right skills and education to meet the demands of the work. The Virginia Commonwealth University Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness online program equips students with the skills and knowledge to pursue a host of homeland security careers.

What is Homeland Security? 4 Major Components

Achieving homeland security demands a comprehensive approach. The DHS plan to safeguard the nation identifies the following key components of homeland security.


Terrorists continue to develop new methods and strategies to attack the U.S. and its interests. In response to shifting and evolving threats, the DHS has outlined several goals:

  • Gather and share intelligence
  • Detect and thwart terrorist plans
  • Protect important leaders, from the president to visiting heads of state
  • Safeguard soft targets, such as federal facilities and densely populated commercial centers
  • Disrupt rogue nations and other actors from developing and acquiring weapons of mass destruction or biological and chemical materials with the potential for terrorist uses

Counterterrorism involves protecting both people and infrastructure from domestic and global threats. As such, many agencies engage in a variety of counterterrorism activities. The U.S. Secret Service protects leaders from terrorist threats, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) prepares for and responds to terrorism, and the National Counterterrorism Center maintains a database of suspected and known terrorists, among other information.

  • Careers in counterterrorism include:
  • Counterterrorism analyst
  • Transportation Security Administration program analyst
  • U.S. Secret Service officer

Immigration, Border Security and Human Trafficking

To maintain national security, the U.S. must manage and secure its borders. Homeland security depends on controlling air, land and maritime borders to prevent illegal immigration; intercept illegal goods, such as illicit drugs and weapons; and stop criminal activities, such as human trafficking. The people and materials entering the country must adhere to immigration laws and processes, as well as customs regulations. The DHS employs technology as well as physical barriers to prevent transnational criminals from bringing narcotics and violence into the country.

DHS agencies collaborate to ensure border security, enforce immigration laws and prevent human trafficking. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents enforce laws and regulations at the borders by screening cargo, seizing illicit goods and detaining individuals attempting to enter the country illegally. They also work to detect any smuggling in or out of the country and identify victims of human trafficking. Another agency active in this effort is U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which oversees immigration and naturalization processes and lays out immigration policies.

Careers in immigration, border security and human trafficking include:

  • Field security officer
  • Immigration services officer
  • CBP officer


Today, the nation’s increasing reliance on technology and connectivity to the internet creates a significant vulnerability. Malicious actors use cyberspace as a platform to attack the public and private sectors. For example, they steal intellectual property, compromise critical infrastructure and spy. Securing cyberspace requires a constantly evolving response to threats.

The DHS outlines the following key duties, among others, as part of maintaining cybersecurity:

  • Securing federal databases, which contain national security information and personal information about American citizens
  • Helping owners of key infrastructures, such as gas companies, strengthen their cybersecurity
  • Identifying and responding to specific threats
  • Fighting cybercrime, such as financial fraud, child exploitation and data breaches

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) defends government networks against cyberattacks with cybersecurity tools and services that respond to data breaches. It also provides those operating critical infrastructures with technological assistance. Another important actor in homeland cybersecurity is the Science and Technology Directorate, which conducts research to innovate technological solutions to cyberthreats.

  • Careers in cybersecurity include:
  • Cyberthreat analyst
  • Technology security specialist
  • Incident response analyst

Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery

Despite the nation’s best efforts to protect itself from threats, it must still prepare for natural disasters and security failures. Being prepared for emergencies and having comprehensive response plans can make a big difference when it comes to loss of life, the impact on the economy and how long it takes to recover after a disaster. The DHS provides first responders and government officials with guidance and resources to respond to emergencies such as hurricanes, terrorist attacks and other hazards. Communities may also need assistance with housing, restoring infrastructure and social services in order to recover. The DHS offers programs that support these needs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) plays a key role in helping communities prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. It endeavors to educate communities about potential impacts of disasters and how to prepare for them. The agency also works to build partnerships across organizations to facilitate collaboration and recovery efforts.

Careers in disaster preparedness include:

  • Emergency management director
  • Emergency management specialist
  • Management and program analyst

Prepare for a Career in Homeland Security

Protecting the nation poses a dynamic challenge. The Online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) helps students understand what homeland security is. Under the guidance of expert scholars and experienced practitioners across several disciplines, students develop concrete skills to solve security issues. Coursework covers key topics, including the theoretical and practical aspects of terrorism and the analytical techniques used to assess risk. As a result, graduates are equipped with a deeper knowledge of how to create solutions that may thwart terrorism and cyberattacks, protect our borders, and build our resilience to disasters.

Learn more about VCU’s Online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and how it empowers leaders in homeland security to protect the nation from harm.