Terrorist Arrest Underscores Vulnerabilities of Biden’s ‘CBP One’ Scheme

And reinforces my December warning that the Mayorkas DHS was ignoring national-security data

By Andrew R. Arthur on June 14, 2024

My colleague Todd Bensman has reported that the FBI arrested six Tajikistani nationals on terrorism charges after they illegally crossed the southwest border from Mexico, “apparently foiling a terror plot linked to the ISIS-K terror group in Pakistan and Afghanistan”. On June 11, NBC News claimed one of them “used the CBP One app, which the Biden administration created to allow migrants to book appointments to claim asylum” to enter. This underscores the vulnerabilities of what I’ve referred to as the Biden administration’s “CBP One app interview scheme”—and reinforces a warning I issued in December that DHS was imperiling the homeland by deliberately ignoring U.S. national-security data. 

The CBP One App Interview Scheme

Four months before CDC orders directing the expulsion of border migrants, issued under Title 42 of the U.S. Code, were terminated in early May 2023, the Biden administration started planning for an anticipated surge of illegal migrants. Key to those plans was the CBP One app interview scheme. 

That program has its genesis in a January 5 White House fact sheet titled “Biden-Harris Administration Announces New Border Enforcement Actions”, proclaimed:

When Title 42 eventually lifts, noncitizens located in Central and Northern Mexico seeking to enter the United States lawfully through a U.S. port of entry have access to the CBP One mobile application for scheduling an appointment to present themselves for inspection and to initiate a protection claim instead of coming directly to a port of entry to wait. This new feature will significantly reduce wait times and crowds at U.S. ports of entry and allow for safe, orderly, and humane processing.

There are many misstatements of fact in that excerpt, beginning with the argument that there is anything lawful about this scheme and moving quickly to the assertion that would-be illegal migrants could only schedule appointments for interviews at the ports once “Title 42 lifted” on May 11.

That program had already been ongoing for months when the fact sheet was issued, as Bensman revealed in November 2022, and was expanded about a week after that fact sheet was issued.

And, as I explained later that month, claims that port app processing was any “safer” or “more humane” than illegal entry were wildly overblown: as noted, migrants can only use the app in central and northern Mexico, which means they still must trust smugglers to get them to the point where they can use the app and then to get to the ports.

Vetting CBP One Interviewees

Most critically, however, even though some 1,450 CBP One app port appointments are now available each day, little is known about what actually occurs during those interviews.

Because none of those migrants have visas to enter the United States, all are as inadmissible as if they had crossed the border illegally, which means they should all be subject to “expedited removal”.

Expedited removal is a tool Congress gave U.S. border officers and agents back in 1996 to allow them to quickly deport aliens who lack the proper documents that they need to be admitted. Part of that process requires USCIS asylum officers to assess the validity of asylum claims made by migrants subject to expedited removal who assert they’d be harmed if returned home.

Given that nearly 96 percent of aliens who use the app are thereafter paroled into the United States, few appear to be subject to expedited removal or to that critical asylum assessment.

Which raises the question of what vetting—if any—is occurring in this CBP One process. Ideally, CBP officers interviewing those aliens would check to see whether they have criminal histories in the United States, but aliens who have never been here before would come back with clean records. 

And DHS has only limited access to criminal records abroad, so unless an interviewee had committed some offense serious enough to trigger an Interpol “red notice” (“a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender, or similar legal action”), CBP officers would have little idea whether they’re dealing with criminals or not.

One class of information many foreign governments do commonly share is terrorism-related data. Terrorist groups are rarely picky about which governments they target (their goals often transcend ordinary transnational political disputes), but such data is usually only shared under the proviso that its dissemination be tightly restricted.

Thus, the CIA, Department of Defense, and FBI may have information indicating that “Mr. X” is a known or suspected terrorist, but line Border Patrol agents and CBP officers generally don’t have access to such information, nor do they have access to other secure information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Terrorist Watchlist

All is not necessarily lost, however, because there are protocols in place to vet migrants for terrorist ties. Which brings me to the Terrorist Screening Data Set, better known as the “Terrorist Watchlist”. 

Again, the Biden administration has shrouded the CBP One interview process in a veil of secrecy, but it’s reasonable to assume (I hope) that every interviewee is fingerprinted and photographed, and that CBP officers collect biographical data on each of them. 

If so, then they should be submitting this information to the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center (TSC). As the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) explained in the context of Border Patrol apprehensions, it’s TSC’s job to determine whether an alien is a match with the watchlist. 

OIG continues: 

The TSC may initially determine a migrant is an inconclusive Terrorist Watchlist match and request additional identifying information, such as fingerprints or copies of travel or identity documents. If more information is required, CBP’s National Targeting Center (NTC) coordinates with Border Patrol agents to provide the TSC with additional information about the migrant to help the TSC determine whether the migrant is a positive Terrorist Watchlist match. For example, the NTC might ask the Border Patrol sector’s Tactical Terrorism Response Team to interview the migrant or ask the Grupo Conjunto de Inteligencia Fronteriza [“GCIF”, an international border intelligence group] to gather information about the migrant from international partners. If no additional identifying information is available, the TSC may be unable to resolve an inconclusive Terrorist Watchlist match. 

Again, that’s all in the Border Patrol context, but ideally CBP’s Office of Field Operations (“OFO”, which has jurisdiction over the ports] follows similar protocols at the ports of entry. 

Because the Immigration and Nationality Act mandates the detention of all illegal border-crossers and all inadmissible alien applicants for admission at the ports, none of this vetting should be time-sensitive. Time is only of the essence in the CBP One app interview scheme because the Biden administration is ignoring that detention mandate to release interviewees into the United States as quickly as possible. 

Even under the Obama administration, as Bensman explained, so-called “special interest aliens” (“SIAs”) – aliens who, due to their travel patterns, raise U.S. national-security concerns – were the focus of intense scrutiny and special handling. 

Then-candidate Joe Biden, however, railed against restrictions then-President Trump had imposed on nationals of certain Muslim-majority countries, asserting on his 2020 immigration campaign website:

Prohibiting Muslims from entering the country is morally wrong, and there is no intelligence or evidence that suggests it makes our nation more secure. It is yet another abuse of power by the Trump Administration designed to target primarily black and brown immigrants. Biden will immediately rescind the “Muslim bans.”

As president, Biden quickly reversed those Trump-era policies, apparently opting instead to treat military-age men from say, Tajikistan, in the same manner as single adult males from Mexico plainly coming to the United States to work. Which means that OFO will process them all quickly, provided they used the CBP One app to make interview appointments at the ports. 

The Recently Rescinded 2004 Ridge Memo

The ability of Biden’s CBP to use classified national-security information when screening inadmissible aliens at the ports for terrorist ties was further inhibited by a memo issued by then-Secretary Tom Ridge in October 2004 that largely barred consideration of such evidence in the immigration-enforcement process.

As I noted in December: 

To the best of my knowledge, neither ICE, nor CBP, nor USCIS has subsequently used classified evidence against any alien since the Ridge memo was published, and honestly, that was likely why the memo was published to begin with: it’s death by a thousand bureaucratic papercuts. 

Normally, I would give the Biden administration a pass for following a directive that neither the Bush, Obama, nor Trump administrations saw fit to rescind (assuming they knew it existed), but as the number of SIAs has surged in the past three years, it was incumbent on current DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to at least revisit it. 

That didn’t happen, however, until last month – after an Afghan migrant with suspected terror ties entered illegally and was released (twice) by DHS – and shortly after Mayorkas reversed his own recission of a Trump-era policy allowing asylum officers to consider terrorist bars to asylum.

Plainly, Mayorkas is taking to heart warnings from FBI Director Chris Way that “dangerous individuals” are crossing the border, as well as findings from DHS’s own most-recent Homeland Threat Assessment suggesting that, “Terrorists and criminal actors may exploit the elevated flow and increasingly complex security environment to enter the United States”. 

Eight Tajikistanis

Published reports indicate that one of the eight Tajikistanis crossed near San Diego, and that all of them came in last spring. They were apparently encountered by CBP, cleared, and released. It’s not been revealed which port of entry the CBP One app suspect entered through. 

CBP should have been vigilant to the intentions of Tajikistani migrants in particular, given the fact that—as the New York Times explained in April—half of all ISIS-K recruits come from the Central Asian country, and “have taken increasingly high-profile roles in a string of recent terrorist attacks”, including “assaults in Russia, Iran and Turkey, as well as foiled plots in Europe”.

Most notably, the 12 suspects arrested in the wake of the March ISIS-K attack on the Crocus City Hall near Moscow—in which 145 were killed and hundreds wounded—all were Tajikistani nationals. 

Shortly after that attack, Gen. Frank McKenzie—head of U.S. Central Command—ruefully noted: “I think we should expect further attempts of this nature against the United States as well as our partners and other nations abroad. . . I think this is inevitable”. 

The good news is that the Biden administration appears to have awakened to the terrorist threat posed by a wildly insecure Southwest border and has taken steps to plug some national-security holes. The bad news is the foreign terrorists DHS and FBI fear may already be here, ushered in under the president’s own “border security” policies.