Todd Bensman, Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, Senior National Security Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, and author of America's Covert Border War, spoke to participants in a February 14 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) to discuss the cases of unvetted migrants from countries "associated with terrorist organization activity" who are accompanying the mass migration at the Southern border.
According to Bensman, although the overwhelming majority of migrants are Central Americans and Mexicans, approximately thirty percent are from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia – countries that have "extremist ideology permeating ... their institutions of government and education." Former U.S. Chief Border Patrol Agent Rodney Scott disclosed that in his last year under the Trump administration, he was aware of fourteen migrants on the FBI's terrorism watch list who were apprehended. Although information about them is limited because "most of that is in the classified realms," Bensman's investigative reporting unearthed evidence of the looming danger.
Many of those from nations associated with terrorist activity are apprehended in countries that stretch deep into Latin America, such as Costa Rica, Panama, or Columbia, where the infiltrators arrive and start trekking north. Still unknown, however, are the number of potential threats that slip past overwhelmed agents at the border. One of the fourteen apprehended was Lebanese-born Venezuelan [Issam Bazzi], who was apprehended in Mexico at the Brownsville, TX border and claimed asylum. [Bazzi] was on the FBI's terrorism watch list, and the bureau found enough information there to warrant his detention based on concerns that he would be a flight risk. Yet instead of detaining him, Washington's ICE office headquarters ordered his release based on concerns that he was "at an advanced risk of catching COVID." Bensman said Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff reported on the case after a source concerned about [Bazzi's] release leaked the information, but it is still unknown why he is on the FBI's radar.
Bensman: that some 800,000 detainees underwent "quick release" last year is a misuse of authority.
There have been "a lot of very quick releases" due to COVID concerns. Approximately 800,000 last year were sent through under a "parole" category, which Bensman said is a "misuse of an authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)." Syrians and Afghanis recently apprehended give no traceable name but claim asylum. In years past, there were cases of Lebanese and Somalis who were prosecuted. In 2017, a Somali made his way to Canada and conducted a "multiple-vehicle ramming attack." Somalis associated with the al Shabaab jihadist "organization that controls territory in Somalia" were apprehended and, based on their connections, "we can only assume that Somali diaspora communities were working with" some of the apprehended Somalis who were "prosecuted for asylum fraud and obstructing terrorism investigations."
Other apprehended migrants on the FBI's terror watch list who crossed the southern border are Yemenis previously caught in 2021. Bensman surmised that because of the civil war in Yemen, there is a spike in Yemenis at the southern border. Some may be on the FBI watch list because they are intelligence assets working with the Saudis, but many others who cross are not. With the collapse of the border patrol and intelligence systems under the Biden administration's failed southern border policy, the threat level has risen precipitously. When a migrant is on the FBI terror watch list, the general rule is deportation to other countries where they are "either released or ... go into custody of local authorities." Bensman sees the Bazzi case as an indicator that "something is really wrong."
American intelligence and border patrol agents are caught in a revolving door of dysfunctional systems.
A Yemeni apprehended on Mexico's northern border with Texas in 2021 appeared in the database of Mexico's intelligence system. The FBI, working closely with Mexico, would usually interview the detainee to conduct a threat assessment. The FBI recommended deportation, but the Mexican officials accompanying the Yemeni left him in a "European transit country" where the suspect escaped as a "runner," also called a "got-away," only to be apprehended once again in Mexico. The Yemeni was temporarily detained, but Mexico released him under the "honor system" which requires him to "self-report" to Mexican immigration weekly; however, he has not been seen since and now is at large. This is yet another example of American intelligence and border patrol agents who are caught in a revolving door of dysfunctional systems. "There are a lot of runners coming through," says Bensman, a fact that "underscores [his] concern about what's happening at the border." The Yemini would earlier have been deported "all the way to Yemen" rather than released on his own recognizance. "Something is awry down there," he says, and probably "will continue to be awry" in the future.
Bensman said that until the "late second term of the Obama administration," the FBI was interviewing "migrants from the Middle East [who] were coming into southern Mexico before they could get any further." He reported that the number of "got-aways" is close to a half-million since the Biden administration has come into office. Some U.S. Border and Customs Protection (CBP) officials claim that "got-aways" are underreported and that the number is closer to a million. A source in the intelligence community reported to Bensman that "the Biden administration has pulled all of those officers out and they are no longer doing any interviews inside Mexico." Bensman has received similar reports from Panama, "another important bottleneck spot where migrants from the Middle East" are in transit on their way to the U.S. The CBP reports that most ICE, FBI, and Border Patrol intelligence resources are stretched so thin that they are being "redeployed" to "manage the flow" at border detention centers.
Bensman surmised that the Biden administration's lackadaisical approach to border security is attributable to its lack of regard for the potential threat of such cases so that it deems scrutiny unnecessary. He added that there are rumblings from Democratic party leaders that publicizing these cases would amount to "harassing Muslim immigrants because they are Muslim." Bensman lamented that it is only after there is "blood in the streets" after an attack that "actual inquiries begin."
Bensman: the Biden administration has transferred border patrol agents to "Walmart welcoming duty."
The Texas Department of Public Safety is drafting a creative approach which would bring in the National Guard to arrest migrants passing through private land and charge them with trespassing. Prosecution of migrant trespassers will make it difficult for them in any asylum claim they may raise in the future. Bensman said that while the Biden administration has "Border Patrol ... transferred to 'Walmart welcoming duty,'" the actual "levers of power on the immigration policy" reside mainly in the White House. Under current circumstances, with Republicans in the minority in both the House and Senate, there will be little legislative action. If there are to be hearings on executive branch shortcomings in immigration policy, they will occur only if there are Republican advances in the midterm elections.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.