Donald Trump keeps talking about the threat from the U.S.-Mexico border. But he may be looking in the wrong direction. FBI reports reviewed by The Daily Beast reveal that far more suspected terrorists try to enter the country from the northern border with Canada than from the south.
Seven FBI Terrorist Screening Center “monthly domestic encounter reports” dating from April 2014 to August 2016 detail the number, type, and location of encounters with known or suspected terrorists across the United States. The encounters are based on information in various watchlist databases. In all seven reports, the numbers of encounters at land border crossings were higher in northern states than southern.
“We are looking the wrong direction,” said a senior DHS official familiar with the data. “Not to say that Mexico isn’t a problem, but the real bad guys aren’t coming from there—at least not yet.”
On Monday, press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters he would not disclose evidence behind the president’s claims that jihadis are “pouring” into the country. “I’m not going to get into specific information that the president has,” he said.
The FBI reports obtained by The Daily Beast provide data on known or suspected terrorists attempting to enter the country, or who are already in the United States.
These reports show hundreds of watchlisted passengers encountered on domestic flights—meaning they are already in the country—and a smaller percentage crossing the border over land.
Those encounters are reported back to the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center and used to compile the monthly domestic encounter overview reports, which are classified “Law Enforcement Sensitive.”
Newly installed Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly traveled to Texas last week to survey the border in the Rio Grande Valley with local law enforcement. He is scheduled to testify Tuesday morning at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on threats to the southern border.
But the FBI data shows concerns about terrorists crossing into the U.S. from Canada may be a more immediate concern, or is at least worthy of considerable attention, according to border and congressional officials.
“We often hear about security concerns on the southern border, but bad actors intent on entering our country will always seek the path of least resistance, so we must have the necessary tools and resources to secure both the northern and southern borders,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
In August 2016, for example, more than twice as many watchlisted individuals were encountered at land border crossings in northern U.S. border states than in all states on the Mexican border combined.
The reports do not say whether the land border crossings were attempts or successful entries into the United States. (Being watchlisted does not necessarily prevent you from entering the country.) The people documented in these encounters can include people holding valid visas, applying for asylum, or caught between ports of entry by U.S. law enforcement.
From Aug. 1 to Aug. 31, 2016, the Terrorist Screening Center recorded 538 encounters with known or suspected terrorists in the U.S. or at its borders. That includes incidents on domestic and incoming international flights, at land and maritime border crossings, during law-enforcement investigations, at Customs and Border Protection inland checkpoints, and in the process of administrative work including vetting for visa and refugee applicants.
Of those, only 68 happened at land borders. Michigan alone had 26 such encounters; New York had 17. Arizona and Texas had none at all—even Vermont and Washington state had more—and California had 19.
FBI Terrorist Screening Center monthly reports from 2014 and 2015 tell a similar tale. New York, Michigan, and Washington have the most encounters with suspected terrorists at land border crossings. North Dakota and Vermont encounter one or two per month on average. The numbers at the southern border were comparatively small. In April 2014, for example, there were 12 border encounters in California and Texas combined and 17 in Washington, New York, Michigan, and Vermont. In the same month the following year, southern states reported two encounters; northern states: 18.
In some months, some southern states had higher encounter numbers overall, but fewer at land border crossings.
In April 2014, for example, there 141 encounters overall in California, but just five at the land borders. (New York, by contrast, had 154 overall and seven at the land border.)
“So often there’s just talk about the southern border, but we can’t ignore the northern border,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “When I brought then-Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas to Pembina, North Dakota, we heard about issues ranging from recruiting and retaining quality border patrol workers to inefficient or out-of-date technologies.”
(The Department of Homeland Security referred requests for comment to Customs and Border Protection headquarters, which did not respond to The Daily Beast.)
Canada Embassy spokesperson Christine Constantin told The Daily Beast in a statement "it is relevant to note that no terrorists have ever been successful in attacking the United States coming through America's northern border." Constantin also highlighted "robust security measures" on the border including integrated U.S.-Canada law enforcement teams.
A new threat assessment report by the Texas Department of Public Safety, released just days before Trump signed his refugee and immigration executive order, describes terrorists’ potential use of existing Latin American human-smuggling routes that “have long transported Syrians, Iraqis, and other immigrants from countries where terrorist groups operate to our land border with Mexico, where they often seek asylum too,” sometimes fraudulently. It does not say this network is currently being utilized in this fashion. (In fact, this report and others say that the more pressing issue may be terrorist sympathizers crossing the U.S. border into Mexico—a dozen of whom have been arrested over the last four years—to evade the U.S. no-fly list as they make their way to joining ISIS overseas.)
This DPS report is being widely circulated among White House and congressional policy makers close to the administration, congressional, White House, and border security officials said. And it is being relied heavily upon for immigration-related policy decisions. DHS Secretary Kelly met privately with the Texas DPS last week to discuss aspects of the report.
But Aaron Heitke—U.S. Border Patrol Grand Forks sector chief patrol agent, who oversees all Customs and Border Protection activities in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska—thinks all the attention to the southern border may be a bit myopic.
After all, the northern border is the longest land border in the world, stretching 5,525 miles and 120 border crossings. The U.S. shares 1,933 miles with Mexico, according to information on CBP’s website.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Heitke said the numbers of watchlist encounters have been consistently higher in northern states, though he said he’s seen more steady numbers than the sharp uptick suggested by the nationwide FBI reporting.
“It’s been reasonably steady,” he said.
He and other border sources noted that the northern U.S. hosts more large immigrant populations that often come under scrutiny by federal authorities. For example, Minneapolis has a large Somali community; it can sometimes be more convenient for a passenger traveling from Somalia to Michigan to travel to Canada first, and then cross into the United States.
He also stressed that the northern border doesn’t get as much overall traffic as the southern one, and border patrol efforts in the northern are aided by portions of near impossible to traverse terrain and a “fantastic” relationship with Canada.
In contrast, a senior border official based in Texas said the increasingly hostile relationship with Mexico will only make securing that border more difficult. The official would not speak on the record, citing concerns over incurring the wrath of President Trump and the new administration from whom CBP is requesting vast increases in resources. The official was unaware of data contained in the FBI terrorist encounter reports. When asked if surprised that the number of encounters was higher on the northern border, the official said “yes, a bit,” before adding that this did not mean the danger of terrorists entering the U.S. from the south was any less.
This official and Heitke both suggested that the attention from the president and in the press on the Mexican border could inspire an increase in future attempts to enter the country undetected through Canada.
“While all eyes are on Mexico the bad actors will take another look at Canada,” said the DHS official. “Unless you’re incredibly stupid you’re not going to try to sneak into the country where everyone is looking. You’d put on a coat and head to Canada.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated with a response from the Government of Canada.