As Middle East Violence Grows, Arrests from FBI's 'Terror Watch List' Hits 100-Year High for Illegal Border Crossings

Illegal immigrants who are not arrested cannot be checked against U.S. criminal, or terror records

By Anna Giaritelli

AUSTIN, Texas (Texas Insider Report) — Border Patrol caught more than 172 known or suspected terrorists illegally entering the United States from Mexico or Canada over the past 12 months, finishing out the government's fiscal year with the highest number in national history according to the newest data released Saturday, October 21st. The figure is a far cry from single-digit terror watch list numbers seen throughout the Trump administration.
The dramatic increase to double and now triple-digits over the past several years has especially drawn concern from Democratic and Republican lawmakers as violence grows in the Middle East.

Of roughly 2,037,000 arrests at the southern border between October 2022 and September 2023, federal law enforcement agents determined 172 were on the Federal Bureau of Investigation terror watch list, also known as the Terrorist Screening Database.

The database is separate from the No-Fly list and it contains thousands of names of individuals who are themselves involved with a terrorist group or are related to or associated with someone involved in terrorism.

The 172 figure surpassed the previous record of 98 people in 2022 and 16 people in 2021, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.

The Border Patrol was established in 1924, and this year's arrests surpassed all others on record. Of all arrests, 169 occurred at the southern border, compared to three on the U.S.-Canada border.

Just 0.008% of the more than 2 million arrested illegal immigrants this year were determined to be a match with the terror watch list, which immigrant advocates in the past have pointed to as being an overblown issue.
While more people on the terror watch list were actually encountered at the nation's official land, air, and sea ports of entry – typically attempting to drive across or fly into the country through a customs checkpoint – it is the individuals who crossed illegally and attempted to evade police who concern experts the most.

At nation's official ports of entry along the northern border – such as where vehicles go through inspection checkpoints and airports – authorities encountered 484 people on the terror watch list.

At crossings along the southern border, customs officers encountered 80 individuals.

The situation at the southern border has overwhelmed the 19,000-person Border Patrol. Over the past two years, many illegal immigrants have been observed on camera and other technology entering the country, only to get away due to a shortage of agents to pursue all sightings because of how Mexican smuggling organizations, known as cartels, use people and drugs to divert agents.

Members of Congress told the Washington Examiner that more needs to be done to secure the U.S. border after seeing how militants from a foreign terrorist organization broke across the Israel-Gaza border and committed mass atrocities.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said the threat was serious, particularly given that 1.5 million people have been observed illegally entering the country since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, but law enforcement was unable to apprehend them.

Illegal immigrants who are not arrested cannot be checked against U.S. criminal or terror records.

“It only took 19 al Qaeda operatives to kill nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001," said Cotton (left,) who is the ranking member for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice & Counterterrorism.

"Many, many times that number of known terrorists have surely crossed our southern border since Joe Biden took office.

"His open border is the gravest terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland.”

Democrat Congressman Henry Cuellar (TX-Dist. 28) expressed a strong desire to prevent terrorists from entering the U.S., particularly by way of the southern border, and said as the ranking member on the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Homeland Security that Congress increased CBP's budget by 15% over the past two years.

"Border security is national security. The horrific attacks in Israel reaffirm the need to secure our border and prevent terrorists from entering our country," Cuellar said.

"I will continue to push for solutions that our men and women on the front line need, such as more border technology and personnel at ports of entry and in between ports."
However, concern remains over the Border Patrol's ability to screen even those encountered.

The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General found in a report released this summer that Border Patrol agents in Arizona arrested, and then released into the country, an illegal immigrant on the FBI's terror watch list, which set off a weeks-long effort by federal agencies to locate and re-arrest the individual.

One Border Patrol agent interviewed by the inspector general staff explained that agents were under pressure from management to process immigrants in custody expeditiously, which led to the security failure.

Up until early 2021, when Biden took office, CBP published press releases on its website when its Border Patrol agents apprehended a terror watch list individual. That practice and transparency have ceased over the past two years.

CBP has not disclosed what prompted it to stop disclosing these types of arrests.

To date, more than 2 million people have been released into the United States, most of whom hold notices to appear in immigration court years down the road about their unlawful entry.

Anna Giaritelli joined the Washington Examiner in 2015 and focuses on homeland securityimmigration, and border issues. Currently based in Austin, Texas, she has traveled to the border on more than 50 occasions since 2018, covering human smuggling, the evolution of the war on drugs, domestic terrorism, and migration trends. Follow Anna on Twitter @Anna_Giaritelli.