Border Patrol agents nabbed 15 people at the southern border in May who were on the FBI’s terrorist screening database, showing the free-for-all along the U.S.-Mexico boundary is unabated.
The number of people on the terrorist watch list caught crossing the border is a record for any month, equaling all of 2021 and more than the Border Patrol found from 2017 to 2020 combined.
They were among nearly 240,000 total border jumpers Customs and Border Protection nabbed in May, marking the worst month on record for the Biden administration.
Beneath those numbers is something worse.
CBP had nearly 12,000 people in custody on any given day but ousted less than half of the illegal immigrants it encountered. The rest were either released outright at the border or transferred to other agencies, most of which would release them.
The most worrying categories of migrants — unaccompanied juveniles and people traveling as families — also showed significant increases.
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About the only good news was on drug seizures. Seizures of drugs in all four major categories — cocaine, fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine — were down.
The number of seizures, like the arrests of migrants, is considered a rough yardstick of the overall flow. So the drop in drug seizures likely means fewer drugs are getting through the border undetected.
The rise in the number of migrants, including suspected terrorists, means more are probably getting through.
“The big worry is with the chaos down there, when you have these kinds of people coming to the border, you have to assume that some of them got in,” said Todd Bensman, author of “America’s Covert Border War,” an analysis of terrorists attempting to exploit the U.S. immigration system.
Mr. Bensman, now a national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, used to work on border intelligence for the Texas Department of Public Safety and tracked the terrorism numbers. He said the Border Patrol used to average one or two every few months, and 15 was surprising.
“That’s a bad number,” he said. “It’s always a five-alarm fire if somebody comes over who’s on the TSDB.”
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CBP didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday.
In late May, federal prosecutors revealed that they had busted an assassination plot against former President George W. Bush and arrested an Iraqi man who they said was planning to sneak an ISIS hit squad across the southern border to carry out the killing.
The man bragged in conversations recorded by investigators that he had already helped smuggle two Hezbollah agents into the U.S., at $50,000 per person, according to court documents filed in the case.
Mark Morgan, who headed CBP in the Trump administration, said when that case, the new terrorism numbers and the overall flow of people are taken together, “we have a legitimate national security vulnerability on our southern border.”
“I’m concerned that the next terrorist attacker is already in the United States because of this administration’s open border policies,” he said.
The presence of terrorism suspects in the flow of illegal immigrants has long been heatedly debated.
When Rep. John Katko, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, last year said he’d heard from agents that terrorism suspects were coming across, he was pummeled by critics and media fact-checkers who said the GOP lawmakers were blowing things out of proportion.
“Fast forward a year, and our initial concerns have not only been vindicated but have grown to represent one of the most disturbing facets of the Biden administration’s border crisis,” Mr. Katko told The Times in a statement Thursday.
“While DHS has accounted for 50 individuals found on the terror watchlist attempting to enter the country just this year, recent reports of the staggering number of known ‘got-aways’ would indicate that we cannot be certain exactly how many watch-listed individuals have entered the United States amidst the chaos at our southwest border,” the New York Republican said.
He noted that the Biden administration had resisted revealing the terrorism numbers for months, though it now publishes them online regularly in response to a request by Mr. Katko.
The 15 people were flagged in the FBI’s terrorist screening database or TSDB. That is the master list created after the 2001 terrorist attacks to make sure the entire U.S. government had access to the identities of people with cause for worry.
All told, the Border Patrol said, it caught a total of 50 people on the TSDB sneaking into the U.S. through the southern border since Oct. 1.
CBP’s office of field operations, which mans the ports of entry, said it has encountered 192 others, most of them along the U.S.-Canada boundary.
Mr. Bensman said many of those are attributed to the same people — perhaps a truck driver who goes back and forth regularly and who may not be aware that authorities have him flagged in the system.
Those caught by the Border Patrol present a different situation. They were sneaking across the border and were nabbed only because agents were able to be there.
People coming through the ports of entry undergo an inspection, which means there’s at least some level of review. Given the total chaos at the southern border, there’s a risk that Border Patrol agents can’t vet every worrying person they arrest, Mr. Morgan said.
“The ones we’re catching and releasing, we’re releasing and we don’t know anything about them as well,” he said.
Fox News last month reported on a man from Colombia who was caught and released at the border in Yuma, Arizona. Authorities realized later that he was on the TSDB.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had to track down the man and arrest him at large.
CBP rarely releases information about specific people on watch lists who are nabbed at the borders.
Last spring, one Border Patrol sector issued a press release about two men from Yemen captured in southeastern California, but that release was scrubbed from the web.
An agency spokesperson at the time said the release “was not properly reviewed” before it was posted.
Of the total 239,416 people nabbed at the southern border in May, 222,646 were caught by Border Patrol agents as they sneaked into the U.S. and the other almost 17,000 were encounters with officers at ports of entry.
Just 42% were ousted under the Title 42 pandemic emergency policy. The rest were processed under normal immigration rules, which under the Biden administration usually means being released into communities to await eventual court proceedings.
“Joe Biden’s border crisis is inhumane and is destroying communities. His open border empowers drug traffickers and criminals,” said Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee.
She called on President Biden to make his first trip to the border to see firsthand “the harm and devastation he created.”
CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus pleaded with migrants to think twice before trying the journey.
“The terrain along the southwest border is extreme, the summer heat is severe, and the miles of desert that migrants must hike after crossing the border are unforgiving,” he said. “Our message to those who would try and gain illegal entry to the United States remains the same — don’t make the dangerous journey only to be sent back.”