“3,755 Known or suspected terrorists prevented from traveling to or entering the U.S. by DHS (FY17)”
— Border security briefing from the Department of Homeland Security, Jan. 4
Reporter: “I had a question about the terrorism. I wanted to ask: Who are these individuals who are being captured terrorists? Are they people on the watch list? Are they from travel-ban countries?”
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen: “So, obviously, I can’t get into classified information. But what we do know is we’ve stopped — CBP has stopped over 3,000, what we call, special-interest aliens trying to come into the country on the southern border. Those are aliens who the intel community has identified are of concern. They either have travel patterns that are identified as terrorist travel patterns, or they have known or suspected ties to terrorism.”
President Trump and top administration officials say they want a border wall because thousands of criminals and terrorists are stopped or arrested every year by U.S. authorities. But the numbers they are citing in televised remarks and submitting in writing to members of Congress are being spun pretty heavily.
Regular readers know Trump and his advisers often pump up the numbers in support of tougher immigration laws and a border wall. The statistics that caught our attention over the past week are all spun in different ways. Let’s take a look.
‘In the last two years, ICE officers arrested 235,000 criminals’
Trump warns about dangerous criminals, but the numbers he’s citing involve a mix of serious and nonviolent offenses such as immigration violations. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports yearly arrest totals without breaking down the type of offense, which could be anything from homicide to a DUI to illegal entry. In a letter sent to members of Congress, Trump switches quickly from the 235,000 arrests over two years to a different statistic, charges and convictions: “roughly 100,000 for assault, 30,000 for sex crimes, and 4,000 for homicides.” That gives a muddled picture.
In fiscal 2018, ICE conducted 158,581 administrative arrests for civil immigration violations. The agency’s year-end report says 105,140 of those (66 percent) involved people with criminal convictions and 32,977 with pending criminal charges. Of the 143,470 administrative arrests in 2017, 74 percent involved people with criminal records and 15.5 percent who had pending charges. But these totals cover all types of offenses, including illegal entry or reentry.
ICE publishes a breakdown of charges and convictions, but it’s not apples-to-apples with the total for arrests, because some people are facing multiple counts. In the fiscal 2018 breakdown, 16 percent of all the charges and convictions were immigration and related offenses.
It’s unclear how Trump arrived at 235,000. If it’s a tally of ICE administrative arrests, he’s omitting that many of those are solely for immigration violations and not the dangerous crimes he portrays. Looking at charges and convictions does not give a total for “criminals,” because one individual may be facing multiple charges, as ICE notes in its yearly reports.
'17,000 criminals trying to get across the border'
Once again, Trump mangles an official statistic. In the 11-month period through August 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered 16,831 people convicted of crimes in the United States or abroad, but 63 percent of them showed up at ports of entry. That includes airport travelers, not just people “trying to get across the border.”
And, once again, the number includes a mix of violent and nonviolent offenses. A CBP breakdown shows that 46.5 percent of all the convictions (not arrests) were for illegal entry or reentry.
‘3,755 Known or suspected terrorists prevented from traveling to or entering the U.S.’
Nielsen included this number in a presentation to members of Congress on “border security,” but she did not break down how many of these people showed up at airports vs. land crossings. Trump administration officials have claimed before that an average 10 individuals per day at the border have ties to terrorism, but the figure they point to includes people trying to fly into the country. A border wall obviously would make no difference in those cases. (We gave this 10-terrorists-a-day figure Four Pinocchios.)
As of July 2017, the State Department said there was “no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States.” According to separate DHS data for 2017, most of the 2,554 people on the terrorist watch list who were encountered by U.S. officials tried to enter through airports (2,170) or by sea (49).
On “Fox News Sunday,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that “nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally, and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is the southern border.” Note her slippery phrasing: She mentioned the statistic and then the southern border, suggesting they were connected. But host Chris Wallace pushed back repeatedly.
“But they’re not coming across the southern border, Sarah, they’re coming and they’re being stopped at airports,” he said. Sanders replied: “They’re coming a number of ways. They’re certainly — I’m not disagreeing with you that they’re coming through airports."
DHS is one of the departments affected by the government shutdown, and we didn’t get much of a response to our questions from officials there.
At a White House news conference Jan. 4, Nielsen was asked about these claims about terrorists. She said she couldn’t discuss classified information. She then gave a finely parsed response that, upon close inspection, did not address the 3,755-terrorists figure for fiscal 2017. What she did speak about is the next item on our list: “special interest aliens.”
‘CBP has stopped over 3,000, what we call, special-interest aliens’
A tweet by DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton draws a distinction between “3,755 known or suspected terrorists” and “3,028 special interest aliens.” So we’ve got two different buckets here.
“Those are aliens who the intel community has identified are of concern,” Nielsen said about the special interest aliens. “They either have travel patterns that are identified as terrorist travel patterns, or they have known or suspected ties to terrorism.”
However, DHS testified to Congress in 2016 that special interest aliens do not necessarily have connections to terrorism. Alan Bersin, an assistant homeland security secretary in the Obama administration, described them in 2016 as “unauthorized migrants who arrive in the United States from, or are citizens of, several Asian, Middle Eastern, and African countries.” For example, a GAO report from 2010 lists “Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan” as special interest countries.
“While many citizens of these countries migrate for economic reasons or because they are fleeing persecution in their home countries, this group may include migrants who are affiliated with foreign terrorist organizations, intelligence agencies, and organized criminal syndicates,” Bersin testified in March 2016. (Emphasis ours.)
Bersin also testified that “the majority of individuals that are traveling, be they from special interest alien countries or other places, we found the large majority of these individuals are actually fleeing violence from other parts of the world, but of course, we have to be very vigilant and we are looking at those individuals that might actually pose a threat and when we do, we actively work with these governments to respond.” The GAO report said “some Mexican drug trafficking organizations specialize in smuggling special-interest aliens into the United States.”
We asked DHS for a breakdown of how many of the 3,028 special interest aliens Nielsen referenced had connections to “foreign terrorist organizations, intelligence agencies, and organized criminal syndicates,” but received no response.
An analysis by the libertarian Cato Institute found: “Zero people were murdered or injured in terror attacks committed on U.S. soil by special interest aliens who entered illegally from 1975 through the end of 2017. However, seven special interest aliens who initially entered illegally have been convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. They all entered illegally from Canada or jumped ship in American ports before the list of special interest countries even existed. None of them successfully carried out their attacks and none illegally crossed the Mexican border.”
‘Every day, Border Patrol encounters roughly 2,000 illegal immigrants’
We previously fact-checked this number Trump gave Jan. 3 because it conflated Southwest border apprehensions (people caught trying to cross illegally) with “inadmissibles,” or people who showed up at legal ports of entry and were turned back or applied for asylum. That’s not illegal.
So it was refreshing to see Trump acknowledge this distinction the next day, in his letter to members of Congress on Jan. 4. “We are now averaging 60,000 illegal and inadmissible aliens a month on our Southern Border,” Trump wrote.
The Pinocchio Test
These flawed statistics are at the heart of the government shutdown because Trump and his advisers keep citing them as they demand funding for a border wall. In each case, we’re starting with a sliver of official data that gets twisted and stretched to the point of deception. It doesn’t help Trump’s case that Nielsen is using two similar numbers for people linked to terrorism — who might not be terrorists or might not be on the border.
Each of the numbers on our list gets Three Pinocchios, except for the last one on border apprehensions and inadmissibles. Trump rightly clarified this figure in his letter.
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