ImmigrationHow many people from terrorism-sponsoring states enter the U.S. illegally?

Published 7 April 2011

Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) says the United States arrested people from nations designated as terrorism sponsors on the border with Mexico in the first nineteen months of Obama administration; an Austin newspaper investigated this claim and reached these conclusions: Cornyn is right that there were arrests of people from the four states designated by the United States as sponsoring terrorism (Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria) — but: the number of people from these states arrested on the Mexican border is miniscule (0.02 percent of the 540,865 total arrests on the southwestern border in fiscal 2009); 87 percent of the people from these countries arrested while trying to enter the United States illegally do so through the Canadian border; and the numbers are dropping: there were 3,309 apprehensions of people from terrorism-sponsoring countries in 2005 (when Libya and North Korea were also on the list), 935 apprehensions in 2009, and 736 in fiscal 2010

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), came to a committee hearing on homeland security armed with statistics about the nation’s southwestern border. Confronting DHS secretary Janet Napolitano on 9 March, Cornyn cited information that he said was from the Border Patrol about people from countries other than Mexico who have been detained near the southwestern border for illegally entering the United States. Cornyn said there were about 45,000 arrests of people from 140 different countries, excluding Mexico, in the nineteen months between the start of the 2009 fiscal year – 1 October 2008 — and 30 April 2010.

At least four of those nations “have been designated by the U.S. Department of State as state sponsors of terrorism,” Cornyn said. “How can you possibly claim that the approach of the administration is working when it comes to border security, in light of these statistics?”

The senator made a similar point the next day while questioning National Intelligence director James Clapper at another hearing. “Would you agree with me, Director Clapper, that an individual with enough money and enough determination can penetrate our southwestern border and make their way into the United States … and that that does represent a potential terrorist threat to the United States?” Cornyn asked.

Clapper’s response: “Yes, sir. I don’t — I don’t pretend, nor would, I don’t think, Secretary Napolitano pretend that, you know, we’ve got an iron-clad perfect system.”

The Austin American-Statesman decided to look into the facts cited by Cornyn to see whether Cornyn was right. Did the U.S. Border Patrol arrest people on the Mexico border who were from nations that the United States labels state sponsors of terrorism?


On the State Department’s Web site there are only four nations currently designated as state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. “State sponsors of terrorism provide critical support to many non-state terrorist groups,” says a 2009 department report on terrorism. “Without state sponsors, these groups would have greater difficulty obtaining the funds, weapons, materials, and secure areas they require to plan and conduct operations.”


Next, the American-Statesman looked into Border Patrol apprehensions near the southwestern border. The paper’s reporters found that nearly all are of Mexican nationals, according to information the agency publishes on its Web site. In fiscal 2009, their 495,582 arrests accounted for 92 percent of the total.

The rest of the apprehensions on the Mexican border are of people from countries other than Mexico. The Border