National Security & Defense

Immigrants and Terror: A Controversial Report from the Trump Administration

ICE agents detain a suspect during an enforcement operation in Los Angeles, Calif., February 2017. (Charles Reed/ICE/Handout via Reuters)
The document is narrow in scope, but unfairly maligned.

This week, the Department of Justice put out a report revealing that 75 percent of those convicted of international terrorism and related offenses in U.S. courts in the past 15 years were foreign-born. During the same period, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials removed 1,716 aliens suspected of terrorism activity or posing national-security concerns.

The document is limited in scope — and intentionally so, given that it stems from an executive order called “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” It does not cover domestic terrorism or tally death counts from successful attacks, for example. But seen for what it is, it provides a useful overview of the threat, and an administration official tells NRO that future reports will provide more-specific data about these individuals. This is exactly the kind of information that should guide our immigration policy.

The problems with the current system run deep. According to the report, 148 of the 549 people convicted of international terrorism were foreigners who not only made it to the U.S. but became citizens without being identified as a terror risk.

It’s not yet clear, however, where exactly the problems lie. The report lacks data concerning where the convicted were born and how many entered the United States through each specific immigration channel.

This is why it’s premature for some on the right to interpret the report as an indictment of the diversity-visa lottery, which grants 50,000 green cards each year to immigrants from countries that send few people to the U.S. through other channels. Certainly, the data indicate a high possibility that terrorists could use channels such as the lottery to gain access to America. (New York City truck attacker Sayfullo Saipov is one example, having entered on the lottery from Uzbekistan in 2010.) But the report contains no data at all on the lottery in particular.

Critics on the left have taken other approaches. Some have harped on the fact that the report — which, again, is about international terrorism — doesn’t address domestic terrorism. (They often compare U.S.- and foreign-born terrorists’ death tolls since 9/11, a convenient start date.) Others have pointed out that the numbers include terrorists extradited to the U.S. after committing acts elsewhere — a more legitimate complaint given that immigration policy could not stop such acts, though these individuals are still a warning of who might come into the U.S. if given the chance.

Let’s stay focused on what these numbers actually mean, and wait for the next reports to come out.

Still others have completely abandoned critiques of the report’s methods in favor of highly politicized accusations of anti-Muslim bias. The top Democrats on the House Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees, New York’s Jerrold Nadler and Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson respectively, said in a joint statement that the report relies on “manufactured data” to “perpetuate a myth that immigrants — specifically, those from Muslim countries — are dangerous elements within our country.” But the data aren’t manufactured, just highly specific. The report doesn’t criticize immigrants in general, just those who pose a threat to American security. And a major flaw with the report is its failure to specify where the terrorists are coming from, so claiming it targets immigrants from Muslim countries is surely false. In fact, it never mentions Islam, except in two references to actions undertaken in support of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The leap to Muslim countries was Nadler and Thompson’s own.

In sum, the report is simple, asserting that international terrorists convicted in U.S. courts are frequently foreign-born. It becomes complex and seemingly contradictory only when twisted to prove one’s political claims about immigration. Let’s stay focused on what these numbers actually mean, and wait for the next reports to come out.


NR Editorial: Confronting the Terror Threat

Just How Severe Is the Jihadist Threat?

Why Bureaucracies Don’t Stop Terror