The government has no idea how many of the thousands of illegal aliens from terrorist-sponsoring states it has caught at the U.S. border and released back onto America's streets were terrorists or had ties to terror groups.
Previously unreleased written responses by the Department of Homeland Security to questions from a Senate subcommittee show that more than 4,000 people from countries identified by the State Department as terrorism sponsors or national security concerns were apprehended since 2000 and that "an unknown number" were released back into the United States.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a senior member of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, border security and citizenship, said the responses show that the department decided because of detention limitations that it was "not practical" to hold those apprehended even though it had no information on whether any of them "were terrorists or associated with terrorist links."
"The Department of Homeland Security's answers about border security and enforcement do not inspire confidence," Mr. Grassley said.
Since 2000, nearly 16,000 people whose country of origin is outside the Western Hemisphere have been apprehended at the U.S. border -- including more than 4,000 from countries deemed national security concerns: Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, North Korea, China, Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
The department's responses had been sought in a subcommittee investigation into the detention of non-Mexican illegal aliens, a category known at Homeland Security as "other than Mexican" or "OTMs." The panel also has focused on "special-interest aliens," who include foreign nationals from countries considered terrorist threats.
Law enforcement authorities have described special-interest aliens as foreign nationals from the Middle East and Northeast Asia, some of whom travel through Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay to Mexico, where they learn Spanish and eventually enter the United States.
Mr. Grassley, who said the department did not provide any information to show "any serious or meaningful effort" to remedy the problems, said Homeland Security officials also maintained an "alarming" policy of releasing thousands of OTMs after their capture.
In its responses, Homeland Security said it was "not practical to detain all non-criminal OTMs during immigration proceedings," saying most are released, and a majority "simply disappear into the United States" after failing to appear for immigration hearings.
Mr. Grassley called the release policy a "potential public safety threat," adding in the Aug. 6 letter that with the exception of Farida Goolam Mahomed Ahmed, a South African detained in July as a terror suspect at a Texas airport after she failed to produce a visa, no other non-Mexican alien has been held by Homeland Security as a possible terrorism link.
"While it is encouraging this person was detained by border officials, the known lapses in border security and the uncertainty relating to aliens who gain entry into the country require close scrutiny," Mr. Grassley said. "While the government has made efforts to shore up border security since the attacks of September 11, my oversight has identified continuing vulnerabilities that could threaten our nation."