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Five Problems with the DHS/DOJ Report on Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States

On January 16, 2018, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security released a report on foreign terrorist entry into the United States mandated by Executive Order 13780, which established the travel ban.

The report purports to bolster the defense of the travel ban and the Trump administration’s focus on immigration, stating that about 73 percent of those convicted in federal courts for international terrorism crimes between September 11th, 2001 and December 31st, 2016 were foreign born. In releasing the report, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated, “This report reveals an indisputable sobering reality—our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety.”

Yet there are five major problems with Sessions’ claim that the report demonstrates that the immigration system has undermined American security:

  1. Even at face value, the report’s data reveals a substantial homegrown extremism challenge. By the report’s own numbers, a majority of the examined individuals were citizens and more than a quarter were natural-born citizens.
  2. The report uses convictions for international terrorism related charges as its inclusion criteria. It thus presumably includes terrorists extradited to the United States or captured abroad who never stepped foot in the country and thus do not speak to the question of immigration policy. It also presumably includes cases related to FARC and other non-jihadist terrorist groups, which represent distinct threats from the threat that the travel ban is mainly aimed at. These are both problems that plagued previous efforts by Sessions and administration figures to defend the administration’s claims on the foreign-born status of most terrorism suspects.
  3. The report assumes a link between being born outside the U.S. and entering as a terrorist. Yet most foreign born terrorism convicts radicalized in the United States and did not enter as terrorists.  A leaked Department of Homeland Security draft report stated “We assess that most foreign-born US-based violent extremists likely radicalized several years after their entry to the United States, limiting the ability of screening and vetting officials to prevent their entry because of national security concerns.” The report added that “Nearly half of the foreign-born, US-based violent extremists examined in our dataset were less than 16 years old when they entered the country and that the majority of foreign-born individuals resided in the United States for more than 10 years before their indictment or death.” 
  4. The report only looks at federal convictions. Multiple terrorism suspects have been convicted in state or other non-federal courts. Such cases are far more likely to be citizens and include two major cases of natural-born citizens who committed deadly terrorist attacks: Carlos Bledsoe, who killed one person at a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2009 but was only charged in state court, and Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people in an attack on the Fort Hood military base, but was charged in military court. Similarly the press release for the report cites data on the large number of immigrants among federal criminal cases more generally, yet as Alex Nowrastreh, a CATO policy analyst, has noted, for such non-terrorism crimes, federal cases are only a small minority of the whole set of cases and over-represent the number of foreign-born individuals accused of such crimes.
  5. Cases cited by the report do not prove the centrality of foreign born terrorists. For example, the report cites the case of Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan, who was born in Sudan, came to the United States, and conspired with another man, Joseph Hassan Farrokh, to join ISIS. The report doesn’t mention that Farrokh was a U.S. citizen born in Pennsylvania, suggesting that the terrorist activity was not dependent upon Elhassan’s immigration history but reflected a broader homegrown challenge.