A world of aspiring immigrants has now fully absorbed the welcoming words of President Joe Biden – that he will grant all comers unobstructed "catch-and-release" illegal entry over the American southern border to live and work without fear of ICE deportation. So now they are coming, in rivulets and tributaries in South America that form a river by Mexico and, always troubling to homeland security practitioners, from a diversity of nations that would surprise many Americans.
Recently, at a Peru-Brazil river border crossing, in but one emblematic instance, Peruvian police and army forces repulsed repeated violent push-through attempts by a U.S.-bound migrant caravan of 400 or so immigrants from Africa's Ivory Coast, Sierra Leon, Senegal, and Haiti but also Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
U.S. homeland security professionals refer to these as "extra-continental" migrants and regard them as a potential national security risk that separates them from the average Spanish-speaking migrant. That's because home nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan brim with terrorist organizations and atrocity-committing tribal militias.
Since shortly before and after Biden won office, untold thousands of extra-continental migrants, including 11 Iranians caught at the Arizona border February 2 – began marching north in caravans and in smaller groups. People like the 187 from Somalia, 182 from Syria, and 63 from Tunisia caught by Honduran authorities in December.
Homeland security professionals will need to somehow determine— often with not even identifications as a start – whether the incoming are the persecutors or the persecuted, terrorists or their victims, have blood on their hands or are the bloodied.
"This is not merely an issue of Spanish-speaking Mexicans and Central Americans illegally entering the U.S. but clearly is a much greater global threat to our national security," said James G. Conway, a former FBI attaché to the U.S. embassy in Mexico City who ran programs after 9/11 to discern jihadists among migrants. "Those who come from countries that have a significant presence of terrorist groups must be cleared through background checks and vetted. And yes, there are still international terrorists who want to bring harm to America and its people."
A Clarion Call to Come Heard Very Far and Wide
"This is like a pressure cooker," Walter Cotte, regional director of the Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent for the Americas and Caribbean told French media in August about bursting-at-seams Panamanian camps.
Pressure to advance built sharply even before Biden won the November election promising a deportation moratorium and reversals of Donald Trump's "Wait in Mexico" push-back policy, manifesting as riots in Panama, Guyana, Suriname and Ecuador. Frustration, for instance, led to unrest in the government camp for 200 people in the small Panamanian village of La Penita, where up to 2,000 migrants stuck there set fire to facilities and damaged vehicles. Caravans began to form all over the Americas after the election, from Guayana to Paraguay to Chile, organized on social media networks.
With countries like Panama and Costa Rica now loosening their borders, the march is on in remote locations like the Chilean town of Colchane on the border with Bolivia, where police have fought a losing battle against thousands of U.S.-bound migrants since January. Local Chilean authorities noted last week that in January 3,600 foreigners had crossed irregularly through the Chile-Bolivia border, some 10 times more than the previous year.
A February 18 Associated Press dispatch from Mexico reported alarming increases in migrant numbers trekking from Panama in "small, discreet groups." The story quoted Father Gabriel Romero complaining about his overrun shelter in Tabasco state, which filled with 1,500 in just the first six weeks of 2021, compared to 3,000 for all of 2020.
"We have a tremendous flow and there isn't capacity," the priest told the AP. "The situation could get out of control. We need a dialogue with all of the authorities before this becomes chaos."
Anticipating a rush from their south, Central American governments last week began coordinating a plan to counter "a possible wave of migration of Haitians, Cubans, Asians, and Africans who seek to reach the United States irregularly," Noticias por El Mundo reports.
The main reason for all of this, now, according to AP?
"Some migrants have expressed hope of a friendlier reception from the new U.S. administration, or started moving when some borders were reopened."
The Security Vetting Challenge
As described at length in America's Covert Border War, significant homeland security programs were deployed many years ago to determine if extra-continentals from countries of terrorism concern are hiding terrorism involvements and intent.
A main thrust of America's covert border war flags border-crossing migrants from terrorism countries, when they are caught, for intensive FBI and ICE interviews to learn hearts, minds, intent and stories. Another prong in these unknown efforts is an American hunt throughout for their smugglers throughout Latin America.
Migrant surge crises handicap efforts like these and make America less safe. That's not according to any book but, rather, to a hardly noticed October Department of Homeland Security Threat Assessment, which warned that terrorist organizations could take advantage of a predicted 2021 migrant surge crisis to "facilitate the movement of affiliated persons toward the United States."
The DHS assessment stands as sufficient warning that the Biden administration, in whatever else it decides to do about the illegal immigration it has encouraged, somehow makes sure to handle extra-continentals with the extra energy they require.
Todd Bensman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. He previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.