BORDER SECURITYThe Southern Border Poses Terrorism Risks. Homegrown Threats Still Loom Larger.

By Jacob Ware

Published 29 September 2023

The fears of terrorists entering the U.S. illegally can never be completely dismissed, but to date they have been mostly hypothetical, as there is scant evidence that illegal immigrants have committed acts of terrorism in the United States. For now, the most serious terrorist danger still comes from lone-actor racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs), radicalized online here inside the United States, attacking soft targets using firearms.

Recent reporting and opinion articles have raised fears of illegal immigrants crossing the southern border to commit terrorist attacks in the United States on behalf of foreign actors. “The reality is that [President Joe Biden’s] open border is the gravest terrorist threat to the homeland in years,” Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), for instance, wrote in a Fox article commemorating the twenty-second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The comment followed an August news piece in CNN that revealed more than a dozen Uzbek migrants had sought asylum at the southern border, having “traveled with the help of a smuggler with ties to ISIS.”

Those arguments highlighting the threat of terrorist attacks by illegal immigrants overlook three important points of context. First, although such fears can never be completely dismissed, to date they have been mostly hypothetical, as there is scant evidence that illegal immigrants have committed acts of terrorism in the United States. For instance, of the 3,203 offenders in the University of Maryland’s Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States dataset, only nineteen (less than 0.6 percent) are listed as “Undocumented Resident.” Most modern acts of American terrorism directed or inspired by foreign terrorist organizations—such as ISIS-inspired attacks in the cities of San Bernardino, Orlando, and New York between 2015 and 2017—are instead committed by “homegrown” legal immigrants or U.S. citizens. This was in fact a deliberate strategy pursued by groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which calculated—correctly—that it would be far easier to inspire lone actors in the United States than attempt to send operatives into the country. As the Pulse nightclub in Orlando can attest, lone American jihadists can cause plenty of damage without needing to be smuggled across the border. Meanwhile, each of the 9/11 attackers flew into U.S. ports of entry and were in the country legally (albeit with two having outstayed their visas).