IMMIGRATIONThe Manufactured Crisis of Migrant Terrorists at the Border

By Alex Nowrasteh

Published 7 May 2024

Politicians and pundits have given rise to a flood of rhetoric about terrorists exploiting border chaos to harm Americans. But exaggerated threats of terrorists crossing the southern border lead to costly, disproportionate policy decisions.

Since late 2020, Border Patrol along the United States–Mexico border has encountered over 6.9 million illegal crossers. A recent Pew Research survey reveals that 57 percent of respondents consider “dealing with immigration” a top policy priority this election year—just below “defending against terrorism” at 63 percent.

Amid this backdrop, politicians and pundits have been quick to conflate these issues, holding numerous congressional hearings on the purported threat of terrorists entering the U.S. to commit acts of terror. This has given rise to a flood of rhetoric about said terrorists exploiting border chaos to harm Americans.

Despite this fearmongering, the actual threat of foreign‐born terrorism is relatively minor and manageable. New research from the Cato Institute indicates that since 1975, the annual likelihood of an American being murdered in a foreigner‐committed terrorist attack is about one in 4.5 million.

Nonetheless, the public remains on edge. A serious car accident and explosion by a port of entry in upstate New York on November 22, 2023, was initially mistaken by many reporters and pundits as a terrorist attack. At the same time, patently fake videos on X (formerly Twitter) claiming that a terrorist had crossed the border circulated widely.

Reports that illegal border crossers who are on the terrorist watch list have been apprehended seem to validate these fears. One person detained and released by Border Patrol in March 2023 was later discovered to be on the watch list. Similarly, Isnardo Garcia‐Amado was detained in Arizona in early 2022, released, and then promptly arrested after the government determined he was on the terrorist watchlist.

Since late 2020, Border Patrol has encountered 357 foreigners on the terrorist watch list attempting to cross the southwest border illegally. But being on the watch list does not necessarily indicate an intent to commit terrorism on U.S. soil—which is what the public actually cares about.

Despite these apprehensions, there have been no convictions, nor have any of the watch‐listed individuals been charged with actually planning a terrorist attack—an implausible result if they were all actually terrorists. The watch list seems to largely be leading to apprehensions of Colombians previously involved with groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which pose no direct threat to the United States.

The government should be vigilant, but the public should moderate their fears regarding terrorists crossing the U.S. border. According to the Cato study, not a single American has been killed in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil carried out by an immigrant who entered illegally by crossing a land or water border. That’s not to suggest such an event could never happen—it absolutely could. But so far, there’s scant evidence to suggest terrorists are using this route or have any intention to do so.

The actual risk posed by foreigners who enter in ways other than across the southern border varies considerably. For instance, the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by any illegal immigrant since 1975 was zero. Almost 98 percent of all victims of foreign‐born terrorists were murdered in the 9/11 terror attacks—the deadliest in world history. The 9/11 hijackers entered as tourists and students, all with visas.

This is not to trivialize the threat posed by foreign‐born terrorists to the lives, liberty, and private property of Americans. Since 1975, there have been 3,046 people murdered by foreign‐born terrorists on U.S. soil. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, justifying some level of continued governmental vigilance and resources.

However, perspective is crucial. During the same period, almost 990,000 people were murdered in the U.S. through regular criminal homicides—about 323 times more than those killed by foreign‐born terrorists.

If media and political discussions were proportional, they would spend about one minute addressing foreign‐born terrorist threats for every 5.5 hours they spend on the threat of regular homicide. However, Republicans on the House Subcommittee on Immigration Integrity, Security, and Enforcement have held as many hearings on illegal immigrant terrorists along the border as on normal crime, despite there being no attacks to speak of.

It’s vital that Americans grasp the real extent of the terrorist threat to avoid the overblown fears that lead to poor policy decisions. Those misguided policies, informed by inaccurate assessments of the risk, have led U.S. politicians to allocate disproportionate resources to a relatively minor and manageable threat. A rational evaluation of the facts should allow us to breathe a cautious sigh of relief, recalibrating our focus toward more pressing domestic issues.

Alex Nowrasteh is vice president for economic and social policy studies at the Cato Institute. This article, originally posted to the Cato Institute website, is published courtesy of the Cato Institute.