U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz.
Photo by John Moore/Getty

White House’s claims about terrorists at border start to look even worse


The White House has a goal: build a giant border wall. It also has something resembling a plan to reach that goal: scare Americans into believing that the medieval vanity project will keep them safe.

To that end, Donald Trump declared on Friday, “[Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen] has gone over the numbers, and the numbers are alarming. You know, one of the numbers that jumps out is last year, in 2017, actually. Over 3,700 known or suspected terrorists tried to enter into this country…. We have terrorists coming through the southern border because they find that’s probably the easiest place to come through.”

The same afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders echoed her boss’ assertion, arguing that Customs and Border Protection picked up nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists last year “that came across our southern border.” Even a Fox News host found it difficult to tolerate such brazen dishonesty.

But if the administration’s talking points are obvious lies, what’s the actual number? NBC News had an important report yesterday afternoon:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered 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, according to CBP data provided to Congress in May 2018 and obtained by NBC News. […]

Overall, 41 people on the Terrorist Screening Database were encountered at the southern border from Oct. 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, but 35 of them were U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. Six were classified as non-U.S. persons.

On the northern border, CBP stopped 91 people listed in the database, including 41 who were not American citizens or residents.

Let’s take stock of where things stand in light of the latest revelations. First, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders said officials picked up nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists last year “that came across our southern border,” she was off by nearly 4,000.

Second, the six people who were caught appeared on a watchlist and may or may not have been dangerous.

Third, these individuals were stopped under the existing system, which further suggests a wall isn’t necessary.

And finally, there’s the inconvenient fact that more individuals from the watchlist tried to enter the United States through our northern border – where Trump and his team don’t see a crisis, and where they’ve shown no interest in trying to build a giant wall.

For her part, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen wrote on Twitter last night that the “exact number” of people from the watchlist that officials have encountered at the southern border “is sensitive and details about these cases are extremely sensitive.”

Perhaps. But this sounds a lot like an administration that wants Americans to be afraid of a threat that doesn’t appear to exist, while asking that the public simply take Team Trump’s word for it, even in the face of contradictory evidence.