Designating Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Immigration Enforcement

By Dan Cadman on July 2, 2015

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just issued a public report on the process used to designate foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which assigns lead responsibility to the Secretary of State. It is called "Combating Terrorism: Foreign Terrorist Organization Designation Process and U.S. Agency Enforcement Actions".

GAO initially prepared and distributed the report to the Department of State (DOS) and other government parties in April, but withheld it publicly until material that DOS identified as "sensitive but unclassified" (SBU) was redacted from the public version just released.

Even with the SBU redactions, one finds some interesting and suggestive factoids buried in the report in typically dry bureaucratic language.

Among them is that, under the designation process developed by DOS, various agencies participating in the targeting and review can put "holds" on designation. Section 219 of the INA, which outlines the legal basis for designation of FTOs contains no such proviso.

The reasons described for placing "holds" are just a wee bit fuzzy and this arouses my suspicious nature because, in addition to the other government agencies one would expect to participate (such as the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Justice and Homeland Security Departments, etc.), one finds mentioned the DOS regional bureaus (see note 16 in the report). These are the folks that look out for the political angles of inter-governmental relationships between the United States and other countries. Could it be that bilateral politics are involved in FTO designation? One fears so, because it is suggestive that, although various other statistics are scattered throughout the GAO report, the number of holds and who placed them is nowhere to be found. Could this be the "sensitive" data that DOS didn't want revealed to the public? If so, under which secretaries of State did such regional bureaus exercise this extra-statutory ability? And how many such holds have been placed, and for how long?

Another interesting factoid is that between 2009 and 2014 Customs and Border Protection inspectors denied entry to over 1,000 alien applicants for admission based on terrorism grounds, including membership in or affiliation with designated FTOs. We can reasonably assume that some portion of these aliens were applying for admission under the visa waiver program (VWP) and that a significant number were granted multiple entry visas by DOS consular officers before the terrorist connection was known, but that their visas were not revoked by DOS after the connection was made.

Then there is the abysmally low number of aliens taken into custody within the United States on terrorism-related removal grounds, presumably by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. During the same date range used to calculate CBP figures, (2009-2014 — half of a decade), ICE agents have removed exactly three aliens. Three. And yet the FBI director, the director of national intelligence, and others tell us that the nation is peppered with Islamic State supporters, not to mention the plethora of other terrorist groups one can choose to affiliate with.

The shockingly low number comports with remarks I made in a prior posting when I commented that since the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), whose mission is obviously to protect the homeland, we Americans — and most particularly the leaders in this administration — seem to have forgotten the important lesson about the nexus between safe communities and using the deportation laws to remove foreign threats.

Two other noteworthy items that merit their own examinations in full, but not here: that waivers have been granted to individuals with terrorist connections, apparently both to enter the United States, and to gain various immigration benefits administered by one of DHS's subordinate agencies; and that of the 69 FTOs designated since 1997 when the law authorizing designation took effect, 10 (nearly 15 percent of total designations) have been removed from the list by the Secretary of State.