By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Supervisor Jim Desmond at press conference calling for border closure
October 28,2023 (San Diego) – The Israel-Hamas war has inflamed anti-U.S. sentiments around the world, sparking protests outside U.S. embassies in several nations,. NBC news reports. That’s led some local conservative politicians including Supervisor Jim Desmond and Supervisorial candidate Amy Reichert to call for closure of the border to new immigrants, citing fears that militants allied with terrorist groups supporting Hamas could potentially cross the border into the U.S. with an aim to harm Americans.
How credible are those concerns?
After Hamas terrorists slaughtered civilains in Israel and kidnapped an estimated 220 people, Israel pledged to eliminate Hamas control over Palestine, launched widespread bombings and now a ground invasion in Gaza. President Joe Biden has staunchly defended Israel’s right to wage war on Hamas, but has urged Israel to show restraint in its response and helped negotiate to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza to help the many displaced and injured civilians. According to the United Nations, the conflict has killed an estimated 1,400 Israelis and over 5,000 Palestinians.
A Hamas leader called for a “day of rage” worldwide earlier this month to show solidarity with Palestinians. Domestically, Homeland Security has warned of an uptick in threats and violence against Jews, Muslims, and Arabs, though such threats have largely come from U.S. citizens.
Desmond calls for border closure
“Our border system is broken,” Desmond said at a press conference earlier this week, joined by El Cajon Mayor Wells, who is running for the 51st Congressional district, as well as 49th Congressional district candidate Margarita Wilkinson and District 4 Supervisor candidate Amy Reichert.
He cited troubling statistics and a need to protect public safety:
- 269,735 migrant encounters at the Southern Border in September, the highest on record for any month;
- Border Patrol encountered 2.47 million migrants in fiscal year 2023
- 163 people on the terror watchlist were apprehended so far this year;
- More than 24,000 migrants have been dropped off on streets across San Diego County in the past six weeks—around 600 a day.
Analyzing the data
After former president Donald Trump claimed without evidence that the “same people” who attacked Israel are coming across the U.S.-Mexico border, a right wing news site, Daily Caller, claimed that a San Diego Border Patrol office had issued a memo advising law enforcement that individuals “inspired by or reacting to the current Israel-Hamas conflict may attempt travel to or from the area of hostilities in the Middle East via circuitous transit across the Southwest border.”
However, the Border Patrol seemed to dispute this in a statement provided to Voice of America: ”CBP has seen no indication of Hamas-directed foreign fighters seeking to make entry into the United States,” a CBP official told VOA, adding, “situational awareness briefs are not threat assessments.”
But Homeland Security's undersecretary for security Kenneth Wainstein said in Washington D.C. last month regarding the spike in border migration, "We obivously are concerned that with thatincrease, youmighthavean increasein peoplewhomightcomeover with malign intentions, including potential terrorists." That was before the Hamas attack on Israel or Israel's military response ratcheted up tensions.
It is true that there has been an increase in recent months in both immigrants crossing the southern border and individuals picked up who were on a terrorist watch list. Those individuals on the watch list account for less than one-one hundredth of one percent, meaning the vast majority of immigrants picked up by Border Patrol had no ties to terrorism.
While Desmond’s concerns over the record number of migrants being dropped off local streets and at transit centers is justified, since the large number has overwhelmed local migrant aid groups, it’s also true that about 98% of those migrants released here have family in the U.S., and most are seeking to rejoin families in other cities or states, according to County officials.
Earlier this month, Supervisors allocated $3 million in emergency relief for migrants, using federal American Rescue Act funds. But Supervisor Joel Anderson called on the federal government to do more, noting that migrants should not be “political pawns.”
The primary concern from a security standpoint lies not with the vast majority of migrants seeking to reunite with family elsewhere, who need only temporary aid such as food, water, and help to access transit to leave San Diego, but rather with the small fraction who may have criminal backgrounds or ties to terror.
Border Patrol does not release those on terror watch list onto local streets
From Oct. 2022 to Sept. 30 2023, 151 migrants were found to match names on the terrorist watch list after crossing the southern border illegally, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol data.
When CBP picks up someone on the terror watch list, they keep that individual in custody while checking their background. Some may be on the list in error, such as when a migrant has the same name as a person on the list, but can be shown to be a different individual. If a migrant is found to be a terrorist or have ties to a terror group, they can be prosecuted or deported. Of those picked up at the border who were on a terror watch list, the vast majority were allied with terror groups in South America or Central America, not the Middle East, and some were apprehended at the Canadian border, CBS 8 reports. There are exceptions; such as an Afghan individual with ties to the Taliban recently apprehended trying to enter the U.S.
Highest risk may be those who evade authorities
Arguably, the system for vetting terror suspects crossing the border is working—for those who present themselves to officials to make asylum claims, or who are apprehended by Border Patrol agents. Perhaps the greater risk is not those intercepted at checkpoints or apprehended crossing illegally, who are vetted before being released to await asylum hearings, or deported. The greater potential threat may come from the ranks of the estimated 1 million people who are successful at evading authorities when crossing the border illegally each year. Detection and enforcement, therefore, may be the most important factors to assure that foreign terrorists don't find their way into communities.
Critics denounce border closure proposal
But halting access for asylum seekers, as Desmond suggests doing, may not dissuade those crossing the border illegally –whether they are seeking refuge from violence or persecution in their homeland, or entering the U.S. with an intent to cause harm.
Some have criticized Desmond’s call for the federal government to halt access for asylum seekers and others. He accused Desmond of seeking to portray migrants as potentially wanting to cause harm “for political purposes” and suggested that barring asylum seekers with legitimate credible fear claims could be unlawful, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.
Joaquin Luken, executive director of the nonprofit Southern Border Coalition, says, “The proposal of closing the border just turns back the concept of asylum and the promise to those that are seeking safety from harm.”
Border community residents aid migrants, but some harbor concerns
Meanwhile in areas such as Jacumba Hot Springs, waves of migrants have led local residents to generously organize efforts to provide humanitarian aid including food, water and clothing. But some of the high desert town's residents, fearful of having their names published, have privately voiced concerns--discomforted to consider whether anyone arriving in their community after crossing the border may be allied with terror groups seeking to harm Americans.
Photo: Migrants in Jacumba Hot Springs