Vice President Mike Pence, shown here at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, Feb. 22, said earlier that seven known terrorists or terror suspects are apprehended along the Mexican border daily. (/Abaca Press/TNS)
Photo: Olivier Douliery
Photo: Olivier Douliery

PolitiFact: Border is not where most terror suspects are stopped

We sought to verify Vice President Mike Pence’s declaration that seven suspected or known terrorists are getting nabbed daily at the border.

The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center says in an FAQ last updated in January 2017 that a “known terrorist” is someone who’s been arrested, charged or convicted in the U.S. or abroad of a crime related to terrorism or terrorist-related activities — or a person identified as a terrorist or member of a terrorist organization “pursuant to statute, executive order, or international legal obligation pursuant to a United Nations Security Council resolution.”

A suspected terrorist, the FBI says, is reasonably suspected of having engaged in or being about to be engage in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism.

We didn’t get fresh information when we asked the White House about the basis of Pence’s reference to border apprehensions. Separately, Carlos Diaz, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman, suggested we review that agency’s latest count of people apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border. In January 2018, the month before Pence spoke, CBP says, 35,822 people were apprehended in the region that takes in more than 2,000 miles from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego. That breaks out to 1,155 people a day.

Best we could tell, though, those statistics don’t include deterred or detained terrorists or suspected terrorists — a judgment shared, when we asked for help, by Alex Nowrestah, an analyst for the Cato Institute, which published a 2016 paper finding that foreign-born terrorists who entered the country as immigrants or tourists were responsible for 88 percent (or 3,024) of the 3,432 murders caused by terrorists on U.S. soil from 1975 through the end of 2015.

By email, Nowrestah told us he was unaware of statistics supporting Pence’s seven-a-day statement about the U.S.-Mexico border.

Another expert helped us identify a seven-a-day claim that has factual footing.

By email, David Sterman, an analyst with the New America think tank, which has compiled information on terrorist activities after 9/11, pointed out that in January 2018, the Justice Department and Homeland Security released a report supporting a seven-a-day calculation.

A government press release and the report itself each say that in 2017, Homeland Security “had 2,554 encounters with individuals on the terrorist watch list (also known as the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database) traveling to the United States,” which breaks out to seven a day.

In Dallas, Pence said the seven daily apprehensions were taking place along the southern border. But in 2017, according to the report, most of the people deterred were stopped from entering by airplane, not necessarily at the border. According to the report, 335 of the 2,554 were attempting to enter by land, 2,170 were attempting to enter by air and 49 were attempting to enter by sea.

Also by email, Sterman cautioned that being on a watch list “is not the same as being a terrorism suspect. It’s a vast architecture that includes many names for varying levels of concern. Denying entry is a low bar to clear. Which is part of the reason citing this number to defend the immigration-centric counterterrorism strategy is misleading. It’s more of a sign that a lot is already done.”

We sought the FBI’s comment on whether the watch list consists of known terrorists and suspected terrorists and didn’t immediately hear back.

Our ruling

We found no facts that back up Pence’s border-specific tally. Nationally in 2017, the federal government says, Homeland Security prevented 2,554 people on its terrorist watch list from entering the country, which breaks out to seven people a day. Most of those tried to enter by air, the government says.

We rate Pence’s claim Pants on Fire.

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