CBP Encounters Unlucky 13 Aliens On Terror Watchlist at Southwest Border in October

But ‘don’t worry’, say ‘experts’ in a ‘fact check’ that’s more spin than fact

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 17, 2023

As I recently reported, CBP has published its enforcement statistics for last month. Its disclosures reveal that an unlucky 13 aliens on the government’s Terrorist Screening Dataset (TSDS) — better known as the “terrorist watchlist” — were encountered at the land borders in October: 12 of them after crossing illegally and one other seeking admission at a port of entry. There’s no need to worry, however, assure so-called “experts” surveyed by PolitiFact in an October 27 “fact check” captioned “How many people on the terrorist watchlist are coming into the United States?” I wouldn’t be too sure — and I’m kind of an expert on the subject myself.

The Terrorist Watchlist. Prior to September 11th, there was no single “terrorist watchlist”. Instead, there were several such lists spread across various government agencies, all based on the information that they had and the criteria that they used. Most of those agencies were highly protective of their sources and methods, which made those lists (curiously and unfortunately) unduly challenging to access.

You can trust me on this, because in the months leading up to those terrorist attacks, I served as the acting chief of the National Security Law Division at the former INS, where I was tasked with drawing from those agency lists to identify and remove alien terrorists.

The Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) at the FBI was created after 9/11 to consolidate all of that scattered terrorist information into one watchlist. As TSC explains, “This watchlist has information on people reasonably suspected to be involved in terrorism (or related activities).”

It continues: “Most people on the terrorism watchlist are not Americans, and they have no known connection to the U.S.” Until, of course, they do have a “connection to” this country, as happened in the case of each of those 13 aliens encountered by CBP at the Southwest border in October.

Watchlist Encounters. According to CBP’s “Enforcement Statistics” web page, Border Patrol agents apprehended 13 aliens on the terrorist watchlist in October, 12 of them at the Southwest border and 1 at the Northern Border.

They join 172 other watchlisted aliens who were apprehended by Border Patrol agents in FY 2023 (169 at the Southwest border, three at the Northern border), 98 who were apprehended in FY 2022 (all at the Southwest border), and 16 in FY 2021 (15 at the Southwest border, one at the Northern border).

By contrast, a grand total of three aliens on the terrorism watchlist were nabbed by Border Patrol agents in FY 2019, all of them at the Northern border.

“How Many People on the Terrorist Watchlist Are Coming Into the United States?” Which brings me to the October 27 PolitiFact column captioned “How many people on the terrorist watchlist are coming into the United States?

That is actually an easy question to answer on the low side: It was the 13 aliens who were apprehended by Border Patrol agents at the Southwest and Northern borders in October who were on the TSDS, plus an unknown (and by definition unknowable) number of others who came in amongst the thousands of other illegal entrants last month who were not apprehended (known as “got-aways”).

Of course, that wasn’t the answer PolitiFact proffered. Instead, it adduced various opinions from various so-called “experts” about why the American people should not be concerned that 13 illegal entrants on the terrorism watchlist were apprehended after entering illegally in October, or to fret about the 172 others in FY 2023, or about the 98 in FY 2022.

“People Aren’t Crossing the Border to Conduct Terrorist Attacks”. One so-called “expert” offered the following:

People aren’t crossing the border to conduct terrorist attacks or take over parts of the United States. A very small percentage may come to commit ordinary crimes, like selling drugs, but overwhelmingly, they are coming for economic opportunity and freedom.

That take isn’t dispositively false, but it’s not dispositively true, either. Neither TSC nor CBP offers any additional information about those individuals, who they are, or why they came. And, of course, with respect to the got-aways, we have no idea whatsoever why they are coming. Making a conclusory statement like the one above isn’t even opinion — it’s pollyannish optimism cum spin.

This all, however, gets to a basic national-security vulnerability created by the Biden administration’s border release policies, which as a federal judge found in March are collectively the main reason so many foreign nationals are entering the United States now.

That surge undermines agents’ ability to apprehend got-aways, and also to fully vet all of those migrants who were apprehended to ensure that they are not threats before they are released (which, as I explained on November 10, happened at least one time in 2022 that we know about).

As TSC’s web page explains, the watchlist is also used by the State Department to conduct “visa and passport screening”. When the administration doesn’t throw open the back door of the United States to any and all who want to come here (as the current one has), that legal visa consular process is how the United States ensures that foreign nationals don’t come here from abroad “to conduct terrorist attacks”.

The Final Report of the 9/11 Commission made clear that each of the 19 hijackers who carried out those attacks exploited the consular process to enter the United States, which is why many of the changes implemented in response to that report were directed toward tightening up the consular processing system. It’s still not perfect, but it’s better than it was on September 10.

All of those (costly) improvements in consular processing, however, are worthless if it’s just as easy for a terrorist organization to skip the visa line entirely, fly malefactors to Mexico, and hire smugglers who will ensure that terrorists make it past overwhelmed Border Patrol agents and into the country.

The “very small percentage” part channels the “expert’s” inner Biden’s CBP, which on its Enforcement Statistics web page notes that just “0.0068%” of the aliens it encountered last month were watchlisted aliens, in a blatant attempt to make the threat appear low.

You shouldn’t be fooled, and neither should DHS.

As PBS explains: “The annual risk of being killed in a plane crash for the average American is about 1 in 11 million.” Do the math, and you will see that your annual risk of dying in a plane crash is .000009 percent. That means that the odds that any given alien gets flagged in the TSDS is 756 times the likelihood that you will die in a plane crash this year.

We have at least two federal agencies — the Federal Aviation Administration and TSA — whose sole purposes are to ensure that you aren’t killed while flying, and a National Transportation Safety Board that shares that responsibility but also exists to minimize the risk that you will die in a car or train crash.

The only agency preventing terrorists from entering the United States illegally across the border is CBP, but the administration’s border policies have agents so overwhelmed that the odds of them dropping the ball moves the needle from “possible but doubtful” to “way too close for comfort”.

“Potential Terrorists Are Not Getting Through but Rather Are Being Detected”. PolitiFact continues:

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson told PolitiFact the agency vets everyone who is encountered. People who pose a threat to national security or public safety, are denied admission, detained, removed or referred to other federal agencies for possible prosecution.

The outlet then cites three separate “experts” to explain the implications of that statement. One, an “immigration clinic co-director” at a major law school, opines that this “means ‘that potential terrorists are not getting through but rather are being detected’”.

The second, the “policy director” for an immigration advocacy organization, asserted that watchlisted aliens “are ‘subject to extremely high scrutiny and are almost certainly detained indefinitely by CBP while they determine what to do with them’”.

The third, a person I actually would consider to be an “immigration expert” from a major university, contends that “the increase in encounters with people on the terrorist watchlist ‘means that there is better coordination between government agencies than before. It does not necessarily mean that more terrorists are trying to enter the country’”.

I respectfully disagree with all three, even the one whose opinion I would consider to be the most authoritative.

With respect to the first expert, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas admitted during a recent Capitol Hill hearing that there were 600,000 known got-aways in FY 2023, and to reiterate, the U.S. government knows nothing at all about any of them. Logically they’re not all terrorists, but equally logically, more than a few could be, and as the numbers increase, so is the likelihood that many are terrorists.

With respect to the second expert, as I explained in the November 10 piece I referenced above, we know that at least one watchlisted alien was released before his inconclusive TSDS hit was resolved, leading to a literal mad scramble two weeks later and a continent away when ICE came to take him into custody.

As for the third expert, his contention that the massive spike in apprehensions of watchlisted aliens “means that there is better coordination between government agencies than before” is (1) belied by the DHS Inspector General report that I referenced in that November 10 post; and (2) has no factual basis.

Even before September 11th — when again, I was heading up the INS National Security Law Division and in a position to know such things — no alien who raised any red flag on any government database, and few if any aliens from what my colleague Todd Bensman aptly refers to as “countries of interest”, who was encountered at the Southwest border or any port was released into the United States.

The current post-9/11 regime, as Bensman also notes, has been in place since at least November 2004, and if anything, it only loosened restrictions that were implemented in the immediate aftermath of those attacks that were even more stringent.

Stating that more watchlist hits amongst the illegal migrants apprehended at the Southwest border equates to better vetting is akin to asserting that finding more stray car keys late at night under streetlamps equates to better streetlamps. Maybe it does, but it more logically suggests that people are randomly losing more keys all over and that some of them end up on the ground near a light pole.

Suggesting, let alone stating as fact, that an increase in illegal migrants on the terrorism watchlist doesn’t equate to a spike in known or suspected terrorists attempting to enter the United States is at best foolish optimism and at worst naked spin. Recent events have shown that terrorist groups want to strike at Western interests. The administration needs to stop making it so easy for them to do so here.