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Skyrocketing terrorist watch list hits at US borders are fueling fear and condemnation of Biden immigration policies, though border buffs dispute whether the numbers indicate a serious threat.
The US Border Patrol reported almost 100 encounters last fiscal year of people whose names appeared on the federal government’s official list of known or suspected terrorists and their associates, up from 16 the previous year.
The watch list hits represent a tiny percentage of overall encounters of people trying to cross the border without authorization but provide powerful ammunition for President Joe Biden’s critics, who say the administration’s policies have created chaos at the border and undermined national security.
“You don’t need that many terrorists to enter the country to cause spectacular harm,” Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) said during a recent House hearing on border security. Republicans raised concerns about terrorists at the border during at least a dozen hearings this year.
The Department of Homeland Security maintains that the rise in terrorist watch list hits simply corresponds to the overall increase in border crossings and each encounter doesn’t actually represent a terrorist attempting to enter the US. Many immigration and national security specialists have concurred, cautioning the American public and elected officials against reading too much into the data.
“There is no particular reason to fear that the numbers directly translate into an increased security threat,” said former DHS official Tom Warrick, now at the Atlantic Council.
1. What’s in the data?
The Border Patrol, which manages vast areas between official entry points at the US borders with Mexico, Canada, and some coastal waters, reported 98 encounters last fiscal year of people whose names appeared on a list of known or suspected terrorists and their associates.
That’s a steep increase over previous years: 16 in 2021, three in 2020, and three in 2019. The agency has already seen 70 more so far this fiscal year, which began in October.
But it’s a fraction of a percent of overall Border Patrol encounters. Last year’s 98 hits, for example, represented just 0.0044% of overall encounters of noncitizens at the northern and southern borders. The three hits in 2019 represented 0.0004% of that year’s migrant encounters by the Border Patrol.
The numbers at ports of entry, the front doors to the US where people can legally enter and leave the country, have fluctuated in recent years: 380 hits in fiscal 2022, under 200 in each of the previous two years, and 538 in 2019.
2. What does it mean to be on the watch list?
US officials assess whether border-crossers may be dangerous by referencing law enforcement and national security information, including the Terrorist Screening Dataset.
The TSDS is a federal database of known and suspected terrorists and their affiliates, including family members. It includes people associated with State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations, including some that have since been delisted.
When agents conduct biographical and biometric checks on border-crossers and get a potential database hit, they alert the US Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center to confirm that the person is indeed on the watch list, Tucson Sector Chief Patrol Agent John Modlin told lawmakers earlier this year.
Those deemed to pose a threat to national security are denied entry to the US, detained, deported, or turned over to other federal officials for prosecution.
3. Is everyone a threat?
No. But more data would shed light on the scope of potential threats.
“The worst possible interpretation: people who are watching this, al-Qaeda for example, saying, ‘Well, what better way to get our people in, send them across the border,’” said Stewart Baker, a senior DHS official during the George W. Bush administration.
Last year, the FBI announced it had busted a plot for four Iraqi nationals to cross the US-Mexico border and assassinate Bush. The FBI described the plan as an attempt to “provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, specifically ISIS.”
Many individuals on the terrorist watch list may not present actual threats, but DHS doesn’t release enough data to say for sure, Baker said. The agency doesn’t publish information about watch list encounters’ countries of origin or what happened after agents apprehended them.
Border policy and counterterrorism specialists note that changes in migration patterns can contribute to sudden increases in hits that don’t necessarily equal threats.
For example, an increase in Syrians arriving at the border could generate a spike in watch list encounters if the migrants have connections to the Syrian government or military, Warrick said. Syria provides support to several terrorist groups, according to the State Department.
“One or two slugs of people with a common set of characteristics would create higher than usual numbers,” Warrick said.
Similarly, a jump in migration from Colombia could result in increased hits because of the many thousands of Colombian nationals associated with the FARC, a revolutionary group once considered a terrorist organization but de-designated in 2021, and its offshoots.
Almost all of the watch list encounters from the first half of 2022 were Colombians, the Washington Examiner reported, relying on leaked data. Federal data shows an increase in overall Border Patrol encounters of Colombian migrants during the past two years.
4. What else is missing from the data?
Some people on the watch list are no longer deemed concerning but haven’t been removed, while other names never should have been there in the first place.
“What the data doesn’t totally explain is whether or not someone who pinged in this list was actually confirmed to be someone who should be excluded,” said American Immigration Council policy counsel Rebekah Wolf, who specializes in the intersection of immigration and national security.
The data can also double-count some individuals, especially at ports of entry, and can include cases of mistaken identity.
On the flip side, the data doesn’t account for any potentially dangerous individuals who evade border authorities entirely, known as gotaways. Border Patrol officials cautioned lawmakers against jumping to conclusions during a recent congressional hearing.
“In terms of the gotaways, I think it would be irresponsible to try to assume who they were,” Modlin said. “All I do know is that a lot of people do get away from us.”
But that’s where the higher risk lies, former Border Patrol Chief Ron Vitiello said in an interview.
“The people that they do encounter, I’m less concerned about that,” he said. “The real risk is the people who can pay enough, who are smart enough, to get through.”
5. What does the administration say?
DHS sees a direct correlation between the watch list encounters and broader migration patterns in the hemisphere and takes the screening process seriously, said an agency official who wasn’t authorized to discuss procedures publicly.
The department is working to expand its capacity at the border and doesn’t have evidence of foreign plots to exploit perceived security weaknesses, another official, Counterterrorism Coordinator Nicholas Rasmussen, said at a recent public event.
“That doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t need to be concerned about and working hard to address the way in which terrorists or people with terrorism links might exploit vulnerabilities at the southern border,” Rasmussen said.
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To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org