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Democrats question Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s claim that terrorists are crossing the border

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) blamed President Biden for the immigration surge while touring the border in El Paso on March 15. (Video: Reuters)
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Speaking outside El Paso on Monday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said border agents he had met earlier that day issued dire warnings that suspected terrorists are trying to cross into the United States via Mexico.

“You saw it in their eyes,” McCarthy said, referring to the agents. “They talked about, ‘They’re on the list.’ … The terrorist watch list.”

McCarthy’s claims, which were echoed by another Republican congressman, were among the most alarming raised by a GOP delegation that aimed to highlight a growing crisis for the Biden administration amid a surge of migrants.

But some Democrats from border states pushed back late on Monday and demanded evidence to back up McCarthy’s assertions.

“Weird as the Chairman of the subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations and a border state member of Congress haven’t heard anything about this,” tweeted Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat who represents the Phoenix area. “Gonna ask for a briefing. Pretty sure he is either wrong or lying.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection didn’t immediately respond to messages from The Washington Post early on Tuesday about whether anyone on the watch list has recently been caught at the border. McCarthy’s office also didn’t immediately return a message.

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McCarthy’s claims echo repeated assertions by President Donald Trump and members of his administration that terrorists were using the southern border to sneak into the United States, a line Trump often used to justify his attempts to build a wall and tighten immigration rules.

But those claims withered under scrutiny.

Weeks before leaving office in January, for instance, Trump visited another border region in Texas and warned that “we have terrorists from the Middle East coming into our country through the southern border.”

As The Post’s Fact Checker found, his administration never offered any proof of this claim and never identified any terrorists caught at the U.S.-Mexico border. What’s more, the State Department under Trump said that there’s “no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.”

The State Department also noted at the time that “there have been no cases of terrorist groups exploiting these gaps to move operations through the region.”

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McCarthy, though, said on Monday that agents told him individuals from as far away as China with links to the terrorism watch list had recently been captured crossing the border.

“We asked them what countries are people coming from,” he told reporters. “Yemen, Iran, Sri Lanka, that’s what’s coming across. They even talked about Chinese, as well.”

His claims were echoed by Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), who said that “people who they’ve got in the last few days … have been on the terror watch list,” Newsday reported.

Customs and Border Protection has not issued any public notices about terrorist suspects at the southern border in recent days. Border agents have found people crossing from some of the foreign nations that McCarthy noted, including 11 Iranians who were caught illegally crossing the border in early February near Yuma, Ariz.

Some Democrats on Monday questioned why border officials wouldn’t have informed them about any recent terrorism apprehensions.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents the El Paso area, said she had also met recently with border agents and that none mentioned catching any terrorism suspects. Escobar accused McCarthy of using the claims “to fuel the divisions” in the country and stoke fear of immigrants.

Gallego said he would demand more details from McCarthy.

“I have have the same security clearance as you do,” Gallego wrote in a tweet that tagged McCarthy. “Can you have your office arrange for a classified briefing for members to see where this info derived from?”

— Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.