In a Twitter thread posted Monday evening, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen pushed a string of debunked and misleading claims about the “threat” migrants and asylum seekers purportedly pose at the southern border.
Nielsen’s thread comes as the Trump administration is trying to convince the American public that “a humanitarian and national security crisis” at the border justifies President Donald Trump’s move to shut down the government over his demand for a border wall, and as Trump is threatening to declare a national emergency to compel the military to build the wall if Congress won’t appropriate him money for it.
“The exact number is sensitive”
Nielsen began her thread by claiming, “The threat is real,” adding, “The number of terror-watchlisted [individuals] encountered at our Southern Border has increased over the last two years. The exact number is sensitive and details about these cases are extremely sensitive.”
The threat is real. The number of terror-watchlisted encountered at our Southern Border has increased over the last two years. The exact number is sensitive and details about these cases are extremely sensitive.— Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen (@SecNielsen) January 8, 2019
Despite what Nielsen would have you believe, however, the number of “terror-watchlisted” people “encountered at our Southern Border” is not classified information. In fact, just hours before Nielsen posted her thread, NBC, citing Customs and Border Protection data provided to Congress in May 2018, reported that there were “only six immigrants at ports of entry on the U.S-Mexico border in the first half of fiscal year 2018 whose names were on a federal government list of known or suspected terrorists.”
NBC reports that the number of watchlisted immigrants encountered at the southern border is actually much smaller than the number encountered at the northern border.
“On the northern border, CBP stopped 91 people listed in the database, including 41 who were not American citizens or residents,” according to NBC.
The Trump administration has already gotten caught lying about these numbers. On the latest Fox News Sunday, press secretary Sarah Sanders told host Chris Wallace that “we know that, roughly, nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally, and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.”
Wallace shut down Sanders immediately, pointing out that the “4,000 known or suspected terrorists” she referred to “are just people who come from countries that have ever produced a terrorist — there are not terrorists themselves.” Wallace added, “The State Department says that there is — quote, their words — no credible evidence of any terrorist coming across the border from Mexico.”
Sarah Sanders tried to use the statistic again this morning, but Chris Wallace wasn't having it.— Robert Maguire (@RobertMaguire_) January 6, 2019
"The State Department says there's 'no credible evidence' of any terrorist coming across the border from Mexico." pic.twitter.com/WNSQzR9Nai
Wallace also pointed out to his audience that nearly all the people stopped trying to enter the country are encountered at airports, not trying to cross the border. But even after Sanders’s misleading claimed were debunked live on national TV, Nielsen decided to push them on Twitter.
“Thousands of terror-watchlisted individuals transit our hemisphere each year”
Following a second tweet in which she misleadingly referred to everyone from countries like Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan as “terror suspects,” Nielsen posted a third tweet in which she tried to stoke fears about people traveling through Western Hemisphere countries like Morocco and Fiji.
“Thousands of terror-watchlisted individuals transit our hemisphere each year, and we work with law enforcement, the intel community, and allies to keep them from using illicit pathways to reach the U.S.,” she wrote.
Thousands of terror-watchlisted individuals transit our hemisphere each year, and we work with law enforcement, the intel community, and allies to keep them from using illicit pathways to reach the U.S.— Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen (@SecNielsen) January 8, 2019
What Nielsen didn’t try to explain is how spending billions of dollars to build a wall across the southern border would do anything to keep Americans safe from “watchlisted individuals” traveling anywhere in our half of the globe.
“Special Interest Aliens”
Finally, Nielsen claimed that “last year at our Southern Border [DHS] encountered more than 3,000 Special Interest Aliens — individuals with suspicious travel patterns who may pose a national security threat.”
“Special Interest Aliens” are not terror suspects, however. As the Washington Post explains:
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.”
The Post reports that DHS did not respond to its request for information about how many “Special Interest Aliens” detained at the border had connections to “foreign terrorist organizations, intelligence agencies, and organized criminal syndicates.” But an analysis released by the Cato Institute last month suggests the number is low.
“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,” Cato found. “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.”
“Be afraid of a terrifying threat that we cannot disclose”
As Adam Klasfeld of Courthouse News wrote, Nielsen’s thread essentially asks Americans to “Be afraid of a terrifying threat that we cannot disclose but which utterly contradicts the public data we submitted to Congress.”
But the Trump administration continues to try to generate hysteria without any regard for the factual basis of its claims. On Tuesday morning, Vice President Mike Pence went on Good Morning America and repeated the misleading claim about “4,000 known or suspected terrorists” being “apprehended attempting to come into the United States through various means in the last year.”
After ABC’s Jonathan Karl pointed out to Pence that those people were “overwhelmingly” detained “at airports, not at the border,” Pence deflected by bringing up the equally dubious “Special Interest Aliens” numbers Nielsen pushed.
CNN’s John Berman noted that what Pence is tried to do is “tell you that people who come from Muslim countries and countries from predominantly Islamic populations are dangerous.”