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Risk of terrorists crossing U.S. border into Texas is real — but low

The number of illegal border crossers from far flung places— including countries deemed sponsors of terrorism — has been increasing, but they remain a small fraction of total border apprehensions.

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In border enforcement parlance, they’re known as “exotics:” distinct from the usual flow of Mexicans and Latin Americans, they are people from far away countries as distant as Bangladesh and Pakistan, arriving at the southern border and crossing illegally into the United States.

People from a subset of this group called “special interest countries,” usually defined as countries considered a concern to U.S. national security, are the perennial focus of longstanding but unrealized fears that a terrorist could melt into the hordes of people crossing the border illegally and release a dirty bomb or inflict mass casualties on the U.S. population.

While still only a fraction of all migrants, the number of people from special interest countries has risen sharply at a time when non-Mexicans  – mostly Central Americans – are making up a larger and larger percentage of the border crossers taken into custody, figures obtained by The Texas Tribune show.

Do the rising numbers mean the United States faces a growing threat from terrorism seeping across the U.S-Mexico border? Experts say the potential for cross-border attacks remains real, but nevertheless remote.

“I want to say right up front that the cost would be extraordinarily high, but the likelihood is extraordinarily low,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “My short answer in that context would be no, the Texas-Mexico border is not particularly vulnerable to terrorism.”

The number of apprehensions of migrants from outside Mexico as well as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – where most Central American migrants are coming from – apprehended on the U.S-Mexico border more than doubled from 6,630 in fiscal year 2009 to 16,973 through the first 11 months of the 2016 fiscal year, which ended in September. 

This is part of an overall upward trend in the number of apprehensions along the country’s southwest border in 2016, and includes migrants from countries deemed state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. Secretary of State: Iran, Syria and Sudan.  

The list is narrower when looking at "special interest countries," a cluster made up of  about 35 countries, including the state sponsors of terrorism countries and others like Afghanistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan, according to a list provided by the office of U.S. Congressman and chair of the Homeland Security committee Michael McCaul. 

In total, 1,004 people from these 35 countries were apprehended on the southwest border through August of fiscal year 2016, all but 172 of whom were from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector was responsible for 496 of those apprehensions — almost half — and 410 of those were of people from Bangladesh.

McCaul, an Austin Republican, said the first thing he asks about in government briefings for the committee is "special interest aliens." He said the “good news” is that there’s “hardly any evidence” of concrete examples of terrorists crossing over the southwestern border, but he said “the bad news is they have the opportunity as long as our border is open.”

“Well as long as [the borders open] it’s always an opportunity, and I think that’s what concerns me the most. This story has been exaggerated in some circles, that there are terrorist, ISIS training camps in Juarez,” McCaul said. “We see no evidence of that or anything like that. But we do know that they like to explore it.”

McCaul was referring to a 2015 report of an ISIS camp operating near Juarez, just miles outside of El Paso. The report, put out by Judicial Watch, a “a conservative, non-partisan educational foundation,” has since been debunked by the U.S. State Department.

One thing that does concern McCaul, though, is the increasing number of Pakistani apprehensions, which jumped from 50 in fiscal year 2015 to 262 through August of fiscal year 2016 on the southwestern border.

“That concerns me just because of Pakistan in general and just the influence of terrorism there,” McCaul said. “We did have two Pakistanis detained in Panama that had some ties we thought, that didn't quite make it, though they wanted to get into the United States. Just about all of these Special Interests are deported automatically from the country. But that rise in Pakistanis, we’re not quite sure why.”

These climbing numbers, paired with a surge of refugees seeking security in Texas, have some fearful. President-elect Donald Trump has suggested temporarily stopping immigration from some of the “most dangerous and volatile regions of the world that have a history of exporting terrorism,” though it’s unclear if he will hold his campaign promises related to immigration.

Texas went as far as withdrawing from the nation’s refugee resettlement program, because Gov. Greg Abbott said the federal government did not provide “assurances that refugees resettled in Texas will not pose a security threat.” The state's withdrawal did not stop the federal government from helping refugees move to Texas, it simply ended the state's role in the program.

“It’s a perennial concern really that we don't have entire operational control of the border,” said Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter immigration laws. “It’s always been a concern but I’d say it’s more a concern now because we have a particular terrorist group, namely ISIS, that has promised that it will infiltrate the United States and send operatives to cause harm. There is a very critical, present threat at the moment.”

Still, only nine people were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border from the three countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism through the first 11 months of fiscal year 2016. Seven people from Iran were apprehended trying to cross the southwest border as of August. From Syria, two people were apprehended through August.

While numerous reports of ISIS-linked terrorists coming across the southern border have been debunked by fact checkers, there have been some reported cases of people with terrorist ties coming into Texas over the southwest border. For example, a DPS assessment obtained by the Houston Chronicle gives the case of Somali Ahmed Muhammed Dhakane, who crossed illegally into Texas and was later found to be an active al-Barakat and Al-Ittihad Al -Islami member in an FBI fraud investigation.

And in 2009, the Government Accountability Office found that in 2008 the Border Patrol apprehended three people “at southwest border checkpoints who were identified as persons linked to terrorism.”

However, the U.S. Department of State’s 2015 Country Reports on Terrorism, the most recent available, notes that “transnational criminal organizations continued to pose a more significant threat to [Latin America] than terrorism, and most countries made efforts to investigate possible connections with terrorist organizations.  

The report also found that U.S. and Mexico collaboration to protect the border “remained strong in 2015.”

“There are no known international terrorist organizations operating in Mexico, and there is no evidence that any terrorist group has targeted U.S. citizens in Mexican territory,” the report found.

Mexico’s people and economy depend on having a good relationship with the United States, Wilson said, so it’s in that country’s interest to keep terrorists from using its territory to launch a terrorist attack here.

“The Mexican economy depends on having a border between the two countries that is efficient in terms of the movement of goods and people, licit goods and people,” Wilson said. “To allow a terrorist attack to occur in the border would be to put all of that at risk, and so Mexico is very much a partner of the United States in ensuring that never happens.”

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