WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson denied claims that four foreigners who were apprehended after crossing the U.S. southern border have terrorist ties and said they were in fact members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – an organization that is fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).
The PKK – a separatist group deemed a “foreign terrorist organization” by the U.S. government – has waged a decades-long insurgency for self-rule in Turkey. The organization has recently allied itself with other Kurdish groups fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
“In September, the public heard a claim that four individuals with suspected ties to terrorism in the Middle East had attempted to cross our southern border,” Johnson said Thursday at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “Far fewer know that, in fact, these four individuals were arrested, their supposed link to terrorism was thoroughly investigated and checked, and in the end amounted to a claim by the individuals themselves that they were members of the [PKK].”
Johnson was referring to comments made by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, during a hearing in September in which the congressman said he had “reason to believe” that individuals known to have ties to terrorist organizations had been apprehended trying to cross the southern border.
Chaffetz later told Fox News he worried about ISIS “coming to the United States and crossing that porous border and getting into the homeland.”
When questioned about the claims, Johnson said at the hearing he had “heard reports to that effect” but could not speak to their accuracy.
Separately, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has claimed that at least 10 ISIS “fighters” have been captured while entering the U.S. through Mexico. Hunter said he learned the information from the U.S. Border Patrol.
“ISIS is coming across the southern border,” he told Fox News on Tuesday. “They aren’t flying B-1 bombers, bombing American cities, but they are going to be bombing American cities coming across from Mexico.…All you have to do is ask the Border Patrol.”
Johnson confirmed that the four individuals claiming to be PKK are in custody and will be deported.
He said his remarks were an attempt to tell the American public in “a clear, concise way” about the government’s border security efforts.
“In the absence of facts, the American public is susceptible to claims that we have an open, ‘porous’ border, through which unaccompanied minors and members of terrorist organizations such as ISIL may pass,” he said.
Johnson said the Obama administration has made it more difficult to enter the U.S. by illegally crossing the border – a direct rebuttal to criticism from Republicans who say the U.S. has not done enough to stop illegal immigration.
“In recent years the total number of those who attempt to cross our southwest border has declined dramatically, while the percentage of those who are apprehended has gone up,” Johnson said. “Put simply, it’s now much harder to cross our border and evade capture than it used to be, and people know that.”
Illegal immigration rose to 479,377 in fiscal year 2014, an increase of nearly 65,000 in one year and an increase of more than 40 percent over the low point in 2011, when fewer than 330,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended. The number of illegal immigrants apprehended has dropped considerably since 2000, reflected by the decline in apprehensions from 1.6 million to around 400,000 a year in the last four years.
Apprehensions of undocumented immigrants – which DHS uses as an indicator of total illegal crossing attempts – are at their lowest level since the 1970s, Johnson said.
He credited the buildup in infrastructure and manpower for stemming the flow of illegal immigrants. On the southern border alone, the number of Border Patrol agents grew from 8,619 in 2000 to 18,127 this year, while the miles of border fencing rose from 77 miles to 700 miles. The Border Patrol now has 11,863 underground sensors, 600 thermal imaging devices, 107 aircraft, 84 boats, and eight unmanned aerial vehicles – most of that added since 2000.
The DHS chief also addressed the influx of unaccompanied minors earlier this year, calling it a “setback,” and said the Obama administration “responded aggressively.”
He said the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border in fiscal year 2014 turned out to be 68,434, not far from the administration’s original projection of 60,000. In the summer, the administration had revised that number to 90,000, reflecting the more than 10,000 minors coming across the nation’s southern border every month.
Johnson noted, however, the number of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border has fallen to rates not seen since January 2013.
“Though the worst is over for now, the president and I are committed to building an even more secure border and a smart strategy to get there,” he said.
President Obama has promised to remake federal immigration policies through executive authority by the end of the year.
Johnson reaffirmed the president’s commitment to take executive action on the issue.
“We’re developing a set of reforms that I would characterize as comprehensive in nature, but within our existing legal authorities,” he said.