The Trump administration and its Republican allies are pointing to terrorism statistics in order to argue for ending two immigration programs. But those who study terrorism in the U.S. say that the administration cooked the numbers to arrive at its desired conclusion.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Tuesday released a report highlighting foreign-born individuals convicted of terrorism charges here in the United States (PDF). Backed by the Department of Homeland Security, DOJ entirely omitted data on domestic terrorism incidents. And what statistics the government did produce are completely contradicted by counter-terrorism experts. The administration is trying to argue that terrorism on American soil is largely carried out by the “foreign-born”; the experts insist that it’s the other way around—that U.S. citizens have been the majority of the offenders since 9/11.
“If you’re looking at international terrorism, you’re going to see people with a more international background—that’s just common sense,” said William Braniff, the executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.
“Whenever you’re trying to answer an analytical question, the way you frame the question directly contributes to what data you include in this analysis, and in this case, they exclude a lot of data that would present a different picture.”
What’s more, the report’s release appears to have been timed—though the White House called the timing “purely coincidental”—to tie national security to ongoing administration efforts to end two U.S. visa programs as a condition of congressional immigration negotiations.
The White House and Democratic lawmakers appear to be at an impasse in those talks, which threaten to derail efforts to keep the government funded when existing appropriations run out on Friday. But the administration insists that that is entirely coincidental.
DOJ’s report found that, of 549 individuals convicted of federal terrorism charges since Sept. 11, 2001, 254 were non-U.S. citizens, 148 were naturalized citizens, and 147 were citizens by birth.
It was the first such periodic report required under Trump’s executive order 13780, which banned immigration from six Muslim-majority nations. That provision of the order is currently the subject of a legal fight in federal court, but other provisions of the measure, such as biannual reporting of statistics on foreign-born terrorists, remain in effect.
The first such report was due to be released in September. Its belated publication on Tuesday happens to come right in the middle of negotiations over legislation that would codify an Obama-era executive order, dubbed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that protected from deportation illegal immigrants who came to the country as children. The White House is pressing to include other immigration priorities in that legislative deal, including ending the diversity visa lottery, which grants residency to citizens of countries underrepresented among immigrants to the U.S., and so-called chain migration, by which family members of U.S. immigrants can also receive visas.
The administration insisted that it was not releasing the report this week in an effort to sway DACA negotiations. But both DOJ and the White House singled out both of its targeted programs specifically in press releases on the report. “President Trump sent a list of priorities designed to enhance public safety and national security to Congress last October, which included the elimination of the visa lottery program and extended-family chain migration,” the White House said.
Within hours of the report’s release, Republican lawmakers were invoking it to promote efforts to do away with those two programs. In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, pegged the report to his legislation, the Securing America’s Future Act, that would do away with family-based visas and the diversity visa lottery. “These findings are further proof that we need to pass legislation expeditiously to strengthen our borders and enforce our existing laws,” McCaul wrote in a statement.
But DOJ’s report doesn’t actually make as strong a national security case for ending those programs as the administration let on, and some of its empirical findings drew fire from congressional Democrats who said the report was an attempt to falsely inflate the need for new immigration restrictions.
“This misleading report relies on manufactured data to perpetuate a myth that immigrants—specifically, those from Muslim countries—are dangerous elements within our country,” wrote Reps. Jerry Nadler and Bennie Thompson, the ranking members of the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, respectively, in a joint statement. “The Administration then uses these falsehoods as reasoning and license for policies that promote the continued abuse of our rights and civil liberties.”
The administration official who spoke to reporters on Tuesday struggled to explain some of those statistical discrepancies. The official couldn’t say how many recipients of family-based or diversity lottery visas were among the terrorists convicted since the 9/11 attacks. “We don’t as of today have all of those details ready to release,” a senior administration official said when asked about those numbers on Tuesday. The official stressed that any terrorist activity by an individual given a U.S. visa is unacceptable, regardless of the scale of the problem.
The DOJ report makes other notable asides that dent its case for further immigration restrictions as a national security measure. The overarching policy change it demands is dramatically increased screening of visitors and immigrants to the United States. But its tally of foreign-born individuals convicted on terrorism charges includes “defendants who were transported to the United States for prosecution.” In other words, its list of convicted terrorists who made it to U.S. soil includes individuals whom the government brought onto U.S. soil.
What’s more, statistics kept by the New America Foundation on terrorism undermine the administration’s case for the “foreign-born” being more likely to carry out violent acts. New America looked specifically at the accused terrorist’s citizenship status at the time of charge or arrest. The results are wildly divergent from the administration’s, though New America does not restrict itself, as the government did, to conviction statistics. According to the think tank, 85 percent of those charged in the U.S. with federal terrorism offenses are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
Karen Greenberg directs the respected Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School, where she assiduously tracks terrorism cases in federal court. Greenberg told The Daily Beast that tracking the data back to September 2001 skews and obscures the more salient recent trend in terrorism cases: Islamic State-related convictions. Looking at those, Greenberg said, the proportions rise to roughly 50 percent Americans and 50 percent foreigners.
“The percentage of individuals born inside the U.S. indicted for terrorism is now 54 percent,” Greenberg said, far beyond the 27 percent conviction rate for U.S.-born international terrorism, those 147 cases, cited in the report. That report is “obscuring the fact that the number of U.S.-born international terrorism defendants have doubled.”
The University of Maryland’s START initiative keeps its own databases on terrorist attacks in the U.S., though along more restrictive criteria than what the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security selected, as the latter includes terrorist plots disrupted in their planning stages. START executive director Braniff noted that only 11 percent of the attacks in the U.S. since 9/11—or, 31 attacks—were “classified as ‘religious-Islamic” in character.
“A vast majority of attacks—not plots—in the U.S. since 9/11 were motivated by an ideology that wasn’t considered by the DOJ report,” Braniff said. “This is not right or wrong—it is just a reflection that the way one frames a question dictates which data are considered for analysis.”
Though the report is a by-product of Trump’s March travel-ban order, the country-of-origin data for several cases highlighted in it do not match the countries whose citizens are denied entry to the U.S. under the ban. Some are from countries not included in any iteration of the ban, such as Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan. Two people from Sudan are highlighted in the report, but while Sudan was a banned country under the March executive order, the September version excluded it. Outside of the highlighted cases, the report does not disaggregate the date further.
Yet the document also promises that its next iterations will focus more extensively on the immigration backgrounds of its targets.
A footnote about the 147 U.S.-born Americans it cites notes: “Information pertaining to the citizenship status of the parents of these 147 individuals was not available at the time of this report’s issuance.”
Future reports, it promises, “will endeavor to provide additional details pertaining to foreign nationals or naturalized U.S. citizens convicted of international terrorism-related offenses, such as their manner of entry into the United States, countries of origin, general immigration histories, and other related information.”