Trump of­fi­cials ex­ag­ger­ate ter­ror­ist threat on bor­der

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY FRANCO ORDOÑEZ for­[email protected]­clatchydc.com Franco Or­donez: 202-302-4697

As con­gres­sional lead­ers hud­dled with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials in the Sit­u­a­tion Room, where wars and covert ac­tions are mon­i­tored, Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Kirst­jen Nielsen threw out an alarm­ing num­ber that took mem­bers of Con­gress by sur­prise.

Sit­ting around a con­fer­ence ta­ble in the se­cure White House base­ment cham­ber on Wednes­day, Nielsen told the group that in­cluded Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, ad­viser Jared Kush­ner and top con­gres­sional lead­ers of both par­ties that bor­der of­fi­cials had ap­pre­hended more than 3,000 ter­ror­ists and 17,000 crim­i­nals along the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der in the past year, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the pri­vate meet­ing.

Nielsen was try­ing to per­suade Democrats of the need for a com­plete wall along the bor­der. But the claim back­fired, with mem­bers push­ing back on the claim three min­utes into her re­marks, the per­son said. To bol­ster the point, Trump pub­licly re­leased a let­ter to all mem­bers of Con­gress mak­ing the point and staff took to tele­vi­sion to em­pha­size the ter­ror­ist threat.

But bor­der en­force­ment ex­perts say those fig­ures aren’t ac­cu­rate.

“It’s very un­likely that 4,000 peo­ple on ter­ror­ist watch list have been ap­pre­hended as op­posed to 4,000 peo­ple from travel banned coun­tries were ap­pre­hended,” said Leon Fresco, who served as deputy as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral for the of­fice of im­mi­gra­tion lit­i­ga­tion in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “If so, where are they?”

Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials are now say­ing that 3,755 known or sus­pected ter­ror­ists were stopped try­ing to en­ter­ing the U.S. by land in fis­cal year 2017. Dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in the Rose Gar­den on Fri­day, Nielsen de­scribed those cap­tured as “spe­cial in­ter­est aliens.”

“Those are aliens who the in­tel com­mu­nity has iden­ti­fied as a con­cern,” Nielsen said. “They ei­ther have travel pat­terns that are iden­ti­fied as ter­ror­ist travel pat­terns or they have known or sus­pected ties to ter­ror­ism.”

But statis­tics from the Jus­tice De­part­ment and DHS be­lie Nielsen’s num­bers. In fis­cal 2017, DHS en­coun­tered 2,554 peo­ple on the ter­ror­ist watch list trav­el­ing to the United States. But of those, only 335 were at­tempt­ing to en­ter by land.

The ma­jor­ity, 2,170 were at­tempt­ing to en­ter through air­ports, and 49 were at­tempt­ing to en­ter by sea.

Those in­side the con­tentious meet­ing Wednes­day said Nielsen spoke about the ter­ror­ism threat for three min­utes when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ques­tioned whether those num­bers in­cluded peo­ple cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally.

Nielsen said that was not the case.

In the let­ter, Trump crit­i­cized Democrats for not al­low­ing Nielsen to give a more in-depth pre­sen­ta­tion on the depth and sever­ity of what he called the hu­man­i­tar­ian and se­cu­rity cri­sis at the south­ern bor­der.

The stand­off con­tin­ued through Fri­day, where Trump held an­other tense meet­ing with lead­ers demon­strat­ing how far apart the two sides con­tinue to be.

Sen­ate Mi­nor­ity Leader Chuck Schumer de­scribed the dis­cus­sion as con­tentious.

“The bot­tom line is we made a plea to the pres­i­dent: ‘Don’t hold mil­lions of Amer­i­cans and hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers hostage,’ ” Schumer said.

JAC­QUE­LYN MAR­TIN AP

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump lis­tens as Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Kirst­jen Nielsen, left, speaks Fri­day at the White House af­ter a meet­ing with con­gres­sional lead­ers.

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