October 24, 2018
IntelBrief: Correcting the Record: Probing ‘Links’ Between Terrorism & Immigration
Immigration policy remains a major issue for the Trump administration, with stories emerging recently about White House infighting about whether or not the current head of the Department of Homeland Security is ‘tough enough on migrants heading to the southern border.’ A shouting match allegedly ensued between White House chief of staff John Kelly and Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, who was apparently critical of DHS Secretary Kristjen Nielsen, Kelly’s former protege. There is concern that as the mid-term elections approach, the debate over immigration will once again become overly politicized instead of analyzed objectively by relying on data and empirical evidence. In January, the Trump administration oversaw the release of a report that purported to demonstrate a link between terrorism and immigration. Dating back to the Trump campaign, immigration has been a provocative political issue and one that clearly resonates with President Trump’s so-called base. Inflammatory remarks about Mexicans and an initial ruling that banned people entering the United States from predominantly Muslim countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—have led many to characterize the administration as especially hard line on immigration. Related immigration issues include ending chain migration and abolishing the ‘diversity lottery’ for prospective green card applicants.
The report, issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), claimed that nearly 3 out of 4 people convicted of terrorism offenses since September 11, 2001 are foreign born. However, several methodological issues plague the report. For example, terrorists who are captured overseas and subsequently extradited to the United States to await trial are inexplicably included in the same category as individuals who emigrated to the U.S. and were charged with terrorism-related offenses years later. This error could be viewed either as an inadvertent oversight or more pessimistically, as intentional selection bias and a deliberate case of “cherry picking” data to support a manufactured and previously-arrived-at conclusion.
The fight appears to have broken down along partisan lines, with senior democrats in the House labeling the report as an attempt to ‘vilify the immigrant community and justify an exclusionary immigration policy’ while a top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee believed that the report led to a different conclusion, namely, that the current immigration system ‘fails to protect the American people.’ But a group of nearly two dozen former leading national security officials and policymakerssigned a letter pleading with the administration to retract or at least correct sections of the report that imply a link between terrorism and immigration, which the signatories call ‘misleading.’ The signatories to the letter, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke,cite issues with data and research design and suggest that the conclusions and findings are politically motivated, intended to support Trump’s position on immigration—an advocacy paper masquerading as objective ‘research’ and data-driven analysis.
President Trump suggested in a tweet this week that ‘criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in’ with people attempting to enter the U.S., although beyond the statement, he did not offer any actual evidence. The alleged presence of ‘unknown Middle Easterners’ is a thinly veiled reference to possible terrorists. Accordingly, while few would suggest that the U.S. not continue to protect its borders and screen and vet all individuals coming into the country, those tasked with keeping Americans safe must recognize where the threat is most severe and allocate resources efficiently. Upon closer inspection of the data, many analysts would conclude that homegrown radicalization is now—and likely will continue to be—a more significant terrorist threat than that posed by immigration. While reports on ‘caravans’ from Central America will certainly be talking points in the lead up to mid-term elections in November, immigration policy should be approached from a data-centric, evidence-based and non-partisan manner.
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