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Tim Scott hypes ‘terrorist watch list’ border crossings

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) during a presidential campaign kickoff event at Charleston Southern University. (Sean Rayford for the Washington Post)
5 min

“Hundreds of people on our terrorist watch list are crossing our borders.”

— Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), in his presidential announcement speech, May 22

In a speech formally announcing that he is running for the GOP nomination for president, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina made this claim as part of an attack on President Biden’s handling of immigration policy. It’s an interesting example of how politicians can twist facts and make a misleading impression.

Just before he referenced “hundreds of people” on the terrorist list crossing borders, Scott set up the sentence with this introduction: “On my first day as commander in chief, the strongest nation on Earth will stop retreating from our own southern border. If you don’t control your back door, it’s not your house. And if our southern border is unsafe and insecure, it’s not our country.”

As a listener, you’d probably think he meant that hundreds of people with terrorist links were crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. You would be wrong.

The Facts

Notice that Scott used the word “borders.” A Scott spokesman said that he was referring to Department of Homeland Security data concerning “terrorist screening encounters,” specifically the category that accounts for a person of any nationality appearing at any land-border port of entry. That means someone sought to enter the United States at an official entry point, such as a bridge, and was found to be on the Terrorist Screening Database, commonly known as the “watch list.”

There’s no firm estimate of the number of names on the list, but it’s thought to be over 1 million. The American Civil Liberties Union, extrapolating from the last time an official figure was given, last year estimated that more than 1.6 million people, including some U.S. citizens, have ended up on the list. There have long been concerns that people are wrongly placed on it, sometimes because of similar names, and that it is difficult to remove yourself from the list.

In any case, the data shows that most of the encounters were on the border with Canada, not Mexico. For instance, in fiscal 2022, there were 313 encounters with people on the watch list who were stopped on the northern border, compared to 67 on the southern border. So far in this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, there have been 49 encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border and 246 at the border with Canada. (Note: Homeland Security says the data may include multiple encounters with the same individual.)

In recent years, the most encounters at both borders occurred when Donald Trump was president, in 2019, suggesting this is not a problem associated only with the Biden administration.

There is a separate category listed by DHS — encounters with non-U.S. citizens between ports of entry. That means people trying to sneak across the border — through sparsely inhabited desert, for example — rather than using an official entry point. This usually happens along the southern border, and the number has jumped in the past two years, from 15 in fiscal 2021 to 98 in fiscal 2022 and 96 so far this year. According to DHS, encounters with people on the watch list amounted to 0.0079 percent of total undocumented border encounters in fiscal 2023.

That brings us to the second part of Scott’s statement — that these people are “crossing our borders.” They aren’t. The people listed in the data cited by Scott’s spokesman were stopped at the border; they did not cross. As for the people who tried to sneak over, they may have briefly entered the country but they were caught.

Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell Law School, said using the phrase “crossing our borders” was an exaggeration. “They were caught at the border, either at a port of entry or between a port of entry,” he said. “So perhaps ‘caught attempting to cross the border’ would be more accurate.”

Denise L. Gilman, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, noted in an email that the encounters with people on the watch list are not common and the “numbers are minuscule in the scheme of the numbers of border crossers who arrive in the United States.”

Both Gilman and Yale-Loehr noted that not everyone on the watch list is a terrorist. “It is well documented that many people are erroneously placed on watch lists and that there are other significant problems with these lists so that an encounter with a person on the list does not really mean an encounter with a terrorist,” Gilman said.

Scott’s statement “forms part of a trend that suggests that there are security risks or crises at the border when there is simply no evidence that asylum seeker arrivals at the border raise any security threat,” she added.

The Pinocchio Test

Scott’s line, while presumably written to be technically accurate, lacks important context. It comes in a section of his speech where he’s talking about the southern border, but the federal data he references shows more of the encounters are on the northern border. He says people on the terrorism list crossed the borders when in fact they were stopped. It’s also possible someone was wrongly included on the watch list.

Scott earns Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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