Trump administration links terrorism and immigration, but an expert doubts the math

Trump administration links terrorism and immigration, but an expert doubts the math


(Elizabeth Williams/AP)

Originally published by The Washington Post

A new Justice Department report issued Tuesday suggests that, since 9/11, 73 percent of terrorism convictions in the United States have involved individuals who were born in other countries. An expert on terrorism data, however, said that what is most alarming about the document is its math.

The survey was conducted by the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security in response to a specific requirement in the Trump administration’s travel-ban order issued in March. It found 549 individuals charged with terrorism. Of them, 254 were not U.S. citizens, 148 were born abroad but later received U.S. citizenship and 147 were U.S. citizens by birth, the report says.

President Trump has called for an end to the practice of letting naturalized U.S. citizens bring their relatives into the United States — critics call this “chain migration” — and for abolishing the “diversity lottery’’ for green cards. In releasing the report, administration officials said the figures underscore a need for tougher immigration standards to keep terrorists out of the United States.

Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham University’s Center on National Security, said the figures instead show there is a need for applying tougher statistical standards to government reports.

“It’s an awfully thin report for an absolutely important topic,” she said. “There’s almost no rhyme or reason to the things they choose to include or not include — they don’t explain it.”

The report considers only those incidents motivated by international terrorist groups — so instances of domestic terrorism are not counted. Moreover, individuals captured overseas, extradited and brought to the United States to face trial are included in the same category as people who emigrated to the United States and were charged with terrorism offenses years later.

For example, Ahmed Abu Khattala, convicted in November in connection with the deadly 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, is counted in the same category as someone who successfully applied for a visa to enter the United States.

“Doing that intentionally confuses the threat of domestic terrorist attack with the number of foreigners, by increasing the number of foreigners,” Greenberg said. Extradited terrorism suspects are not immigrants, she said, and should be taken out of the sample.

Trump’s executive order specifically seeks “information regarding the number of foreign nationals in the United States who have been charged with terrorism-related offenses while in the United States (or) convicted of terrorism-related offenses while in the United States.”

That would appear to exclude those, such as Abu Khattala, who were brought to the United States for the sole purpose of charging them with terrorism crimes committed overseas, but the report issued Tuesday said it includes “those who committed offenses while located abroad, including defendants who were transported to the United States for prosecution.”

A Justice Department spokesman would not say how many such extradition or overseas-capture cases were included in the report.

Greenberg, whose center at Fordham issues reports analyzing terrorism prosecutions, said there are about 80 such cases.

Greenberg also questioned the time frame examined in the report, saying that looking back to 2001 paints a misleading picture of today’s terrorist threat.

Online indoctrination and recruitment by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups over the past few years has led to an increase in the number of U.S.-born terrorism suspects. About 54 percent of those charged with supporting the Islamic State in recent years were born in the United States, Greenberg said.

Senior Democrats on two House committees accused the Trump administration of misrepresenting terrorist crimes to fit anti-immigration policy goals.

Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) called the report an attempt “to vilify the immigrant community and justify an exclusionary immigration policy,” adding in their statement, “The American people will not be fooled by such naked bigotry, and we should not allow this administration to get away with its abuse of the facts to further its extremist, xenophobic agenda.”

The top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), said in a statement that the report “confirms what we already know: our current immigration system is broken, and it fails to protect the American people.’’

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