President Trump claimed last week that “people are pouring into our country, including terrorists.” This came after his unsubstantiated claim that Middle Easterners are traveling in the caravan. Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) fellow Todd Bensman has repeatedly defended these types of claims by equating immigrants from “countries of interest” with “terrorists.” This conflation is common and rarely challenged as Homeland Security officials and members of Congress frequently describe immigrants from these countries as a terrorist threat. Despite Border Patrol apprehending tens of thousands of foreign nationals from these countries of interest and many thousands more who have undoubtedly entered illegally, not a single person has been killed by a terrorist who entered as an illegal border crosser from any of the countries of interest.
Special Interest Alien Apprehensions
The terminology used to describe these immigrants varies considerably between sources. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General defined the term “specially designated countries” to mean countries “that have shown a tendency to promote, produce, or protect terrorist organizations or their members.” Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar described “Special interest countries” as “basically countries designated by our intelligence community as countries that could export individuals that could bring harm to our country in the way of terrorism.”
These definitions could apply to nearly every country in the world, as just about every major country has “produced” or “exported” at least one terrorist. With several exceptions, the lists have consisted primarily of countries with large Muslim populations. The designated countries have changed repeatedly over the years:
In 2003, DHS released a list of 52 countries. In 2004, the list included 35 countries, two of which were new. In 2007, the list was referenced in a news article, and though the full list was not quoted, it included another country (Tanzania) that was not on either of the prior two lists. In 2018, DHS released yet another list of countries where CBP “had Enforcement Actions against aliens from the following ‘Special Interest Aliens’ countries for FY18.” This partial list included yet five more countries that were not on the prior lists. Altogether, these lists have contained 63 countries. Only 14 have shown up on all the lists.
From 2007 to 2017, Border Patrol apprehended 45,006 immigrants from any of the countries ever designated as a “country of interest” (See Table 1). During the same period, it apprehended 4,109 from countries that made it onto all three lists. Given the inconsistency in these lists and for sake of completeness, Figure 1 shows the annual number of special interest aliens apprehended by Border Patrol separated by the different lists and those apprehended from countries that appeared at least once on a single list. Fiscal Year 2007 is the earliest year that Border Patrol has made the number of apprehensions by citizenship publicly available.
Figure 2 shows that only 0.85 percent of all Border Patrol apprehensions from 2007-2017 were special interest aliens. This includes aliens from any country that ever appeared on any special interest countries list. The other 99.15 percent, 5.25 million apprehensions, were for illegal immigrants from countries other than those that have ever appeared on a special interest countries list.
With 16,979 apprehensions, Indians were the most common “special interest aliens” apprehended from 2007 to 2017, followed by Brazilians with 12,925 apprehensions. Both countries were on the 2003 list, but not listed in 2004 or 2018. Bangladeshis were the most commonly apprehended “special interest aliens” who were on all three lists with 2,469 apprehensions.
No Terror Attacks on U.S. Soil
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.
Five of those seven illegal border crossers resided as illegal immigrants in the United States. Walid Kabbani, a native of Lebanon, walked across the Canadian border illegally in 1987 to deliver a bomb to his co-conspirators in the United States. He was discovered by a local police chief and arrested before he could carry out his attack. Algerian-born Ahmed Ressam attempted to enter with false documents in 1999 on his way to attack Los Angeles International Airport as part of the so-called Millennium Plot. U.S. border inspectors apprehended him, discovered his bomb in the spare tire well of his car, and then arrested him. In the scuffle to detain Ressam, he broke free of U.S. law enforcement officers and ran into the United States before being apprehended a short time later. Since Ressam technically entered the country unlawfully when crossing the Canadian border, we included him on this list.
Algerian-born Abdelghani Meskini aided Ressam in his plot after he entered the United States illegally as a stowaway on a ship. Palestinian Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, who was born in Israel and traveled on Israeli papers, was apprehended at a bus stop after illegally entering the United States in 1997. Somali-born Nuradin M. Abdi originally entered the U.S. unlawfully in 1995 on a fake passport. While he did not cross the border unlawfully, he did so on a false passport and would have been blocked like Ressam was if his subterfuge was discovered by Customs agents. In order to include the maximum number of possible terrorists so that we bias the results against ourselves, we included Abdi.
From 1975 through 2017, a total of nine terrorists entered the United States illegally and only three did so along the Mexican border: Shain Duka, Britan Duka, and Eljvir Duka.* They crossed as children with their parents in 1984 and were arrested as part of the planned Fort Dix terror attack that the FBI foiled in 2007. The Dukas are ethnic Albanians from Macedonia – neither country has appeared on any special interest countries list. The only terrorists who crossed the border with Mexico illegally did so as children, decades before becoming terrorists, and were not even from the special interest countries.
In addition to the five illegal immigrant border crossers from the special interest countries, two people from those countries entered illegally and applied for asylum. We typically count these people as asylum seekers, but Bensman and others might include them as illegal border crossers. As a result, we decided to include them here. Although data is a little sketchy on these instances, Pakistan-born Majid Shoukat Khan and Shahawar Matin Siraj are two of the eleven asylum-seekers who probably initially entered illegally before asking for asylum. They entered in 1996 and 1998, respectively. They are both from a special interest country, neither of them committed an attack, neither injured or murdered anyone, and they both crossed the Canadian border.
Although there have been zero attacks committed by illegal border crossers from any of the special interest countries, foreign-born people who entered legally from those countries were responsible for 99.5 percent of all murders and 94.7 percent of all injuries committed by foreign-born terrorists on U.S. soil from 1975 through the end of 2017. This isn’t surprising as the 9/11 terrorists are responsible for over 98 percent of all the murders and 87 percent of all of the injuries committed by foreign-born terrorists over this time. Of the small number of foreign-born terrorists who committed attacks or were convicted of planning to do so on U.S. soil from 1975 through the end of 2017, the most successful strategy was to first enter legally. There is no evidence that that pattern of activity has changed.
So far, there have been zero people murdered or injured in terror attacks committed by illegal border crossers on U.S. soil. This includes those who entered as illegal immigrants and those who entered illegally and then applied for asylum. Only seven terrorists from special interest countries, all of whom entered prior to the government putting those countries on a list, even entered the U.S. illegally by crossing a land border. Two of them were arrested within hours of doing so, two other received asylum, and none of them crossed the Mexican border.
Our above evidence is based on past events. The future could be different, but those who think that special interest aliens from these countries will enter illegally across the Mexican border and commit terrorist attacks here should present some compelling evidence before policymakers take them seriously.
*Numbers based on a forthcoming updated Cato Institute policy analysis.
David J. Bier is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. He is an expert on visa reform, border security, and interior enforcement, and his work has been cited in the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Politico, and many other print and online publications.
Alex Nowrasteh is a senior immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. His popular publications have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, and most other major publications in the United States. His peer-reviewed academic publications have appeared in The World Bank Economic Review, the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Economic Affairs, the Fletcher Security Review, the Journal of Bioeconomics, and Public Choice.