The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered unprecedented numbers of immigrants whose names appeared on the federal “Terrorist Watch List” and tried to cross the U.S.–Mexico border illegally in the past fiscal year (FY).
According to CBP figures, a total of 149 immigrants identified as known terrorists, suspected terrorists, or associates of both were arrested after trying to enter the United States illegally, with a record number of 146 at the southern border and three at the northern border.
This number is larger than the last six years combined. Since 2017, border agents apprehended a total of 128 individuals on the terrorist watchlist when they tried to cross either the southern or northern border illegally, the figures show.
The Terrorist Screening Dataset (TSDS)—also known as the “watchlist”—was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America as a U.S. government database that contains information on known or suspected terrorists (KSTs) who are not U.S. citizens. However, the watchlist has expanded over the last decade to also include KST associates.
As a comparison, CBP apprehended 98 individuals named on the terrorist watchlist in FY 2022. All of the 98 illegal immigrants were caught at the southern border. Between FY 2017 to 2021, border agents only encountered 30 people on the watchlist attempting to cross either the southern or northern border illegally.
In FY 2021, 15 immigrants named on the watchlist were apprehended when they tried to cross the southern border illegally, and just one individual via the northern border.
Terrorist Threat Assessment
The noticeable increase in illegal border crossings of known or suspected terrorists comes as illegal immigration continues to be a hot-button topic that has recently received considerable attention and heated discussions.
Despite the surge, the CBP’s website notes that “encounters of watchlisted individuals at our borders are very uncommon” and that the 149 encounters of people on the watchlist make up 0.0090 percent of all FY 2023 border patrol encounters.
“The mere fact that someone’s name is included in the watchlist does not necessarily mean that they are actually a terrorist,” said Thomas Warrick, a former deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, The Associated Press reported. “The watchlist is, not surprisingly, broader—and in some cases considerably broader—than the number of actual terrorists at large in the world.”
The 149 encounters of individuals on the watchlist make up a small percentage of all encounters reported by border officials. According to the latest CBP figures, in the FY that ended Sept. 30, illegal immigrants were stopped 2.55 million times, down from 2.76 million times the year before.
The annual total surpassed two million for the first time in FY 2022 and is more than twice the highest level during Donald Trump’s presidency in 2019, or a fivefold increase compared to 2017, when nearly 527,000 illegal immigrants were stopped by border agents.
Republicans Seize on Biden’s Border Challenges
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), meanwhile, has criticized the Biden administration for allowing record-high numbers of illegal immigrants to travel freely to the United States via the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Sept. 11, marking the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Mr. Cruz suggested during an episode of his podcast—”Verdict with Ted Cruz”—that another terrorist attack could come from the southern border.
“We have a vulnerability on our southern border, every month people are coming across who are on the terror watch list. The numbers dwarf the number of known terrorists who would come in prior to Joe Biden,” Mr. Cruz said.
“If you’re the next planner of 9/11, it’s obvious where you go. You go to Mexico and you come right across and Joe Biden and the idiots in his administration will fly you to wherever you want to go in this country and you can carry out your terror attack,” the Texas Republican declared. “And sadly, every day that we have an open border under Joe Biden, the Democrats, the odds of another major attack in this country, major terror attack, go up systematically.”
In an interview with the Washington Examiner that was published on Sept. 11, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis agreed with Mr. Cruz’s assessment, saying the threat of foreign terrorism still exists on U.S. soil due to a lack of security on the southern border.
“I think that there is a good bet that somebody that’s come across that [southern] border will commit an act of terrorism,” the Republican governor said.
Mr. DeSantis added that the 2001 attacks “was in part an immigration issue,” indicating that “a lot of these guys should not have been in the country—had overstayed visas and whatnot.”
The 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the deadliest in U.S. history, killed 2,977 people and injured thousands more, making it the single largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on U.S. soil.