Homeland Security

Actually, U.S. Has Had Program to Filter Muslim Migrants Since 9/11, But It Has Been Neglected

(Click here for last week’s article: “They’re Already Here: For Years, 1000s of High-Risk ‘Refugees’ Have Been Crossing Southern Border“)


Let’s get something out of the way before we move on to the more important discussion: yes, Syrians are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. But in terms of the news cycle, this is moldy bread to those who have been around this topic for a long time.

The whole world is suddenly aware of the issue since learning that at least two ISIS terrorists sent to attack Paris (and possibly others killed or arrested afterward) breached Europe’s borders camouflaged as illegal immigrants. Even traditional media like the New York Times is associating the France attack with the threat posed by Syrian migrants moving through Latin America toward our own border.

But despite appearances based on the current attention, we’ve known Syrians have been coming for years. We’ve also known that they have been coming along with people from Somalia, Afghanistan, and from dozens of other countries that Islamic terrorists call home.

There’s no need to keep sounding the alarm about this. Instead, we should all be trying to get up to speed quickly so we can address the following timely, relevant questions:

— What have our homeland security leaders been doing about this cross-border traffic since 9/11?

— What are the results of those efforts?

— What is the way forward now that Paris is officially on the books as a terrorist border infiltration case, and the human traffic from Islamic nations to the U.S. southwestern border can no longer be blissfully ignored?

As I mentioned last week, for the next few weeks I will be addressing the real story about terrorists exploiting our border and our immigration policies. And part of the real story is that — contrary to all you have read since the Paris attacks — for all these years since 9/11 we were aware of this problem, and we did implement programs to monitor, retard, and disrupt migrant traffic that can camouflage terrorist travelers like those who hit France.

The American public did not know much about this campaign partly because its law enforcement and intelligence operations occurred overseas, where they are — by nature and necessity — secretive affairs. But the American public also did not know much about this campaign because the American media and — by extension — congressional oversight committees never really wanted to know about it. And while no one was paying attention, this campaign to stop the flow of migrants from the Islamic world descended into flawed neglect over the past decade.


The vast border security and immigration control apparatus we started building after 9/11, regardless of whether you think it adequate, initially had virtually nothing to do with Mexican and other Latin and South American migrants. It had everything to do with Muslim migrants from countries where Islamic terrorist groups operated. Only later did the political discourse entirely shift to the border buildup’s consequences regarding Hispanic migrants; to the domestic political competition for the “Latino vote” and the various related issues. And because of the shift, serious disrepair to the program has followed.

A classic policy drift has occurred. Our border build-up was never about Hispanics; so much to the contrary that at one early point they created a term “Other Than Mexicans” to characterize what it was actually about.

Earlier this year, I visited the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas (I was conducting research for my Naval Postgraduate School MS in homeland security studies). There, via the White House domestic policy council papers the archivists kindly wheeled out to me on coffee carts, I found plenty of evidence defining the original post-9/11 motivation for our present border security machine. The catalyst for the programs was fear that this new and determined breed of Islamist terrorist would infiltrate U.S. borders to attack the homeland. They arrived at this finding via the following observation: if economic opportunists and war refugees were already able to find established human smugglers with routes for transporting them from distant Islamic countries all the way to the U.S. border, then certainly terrorists could exploit these operations as well. This made the human smuggling organizations transporting these migrants culpable American targets.

Close inspection of the actual language of all the legislation pushed through Congress in those years reflects the same target.

The legislation all started with a series of congressional legislative fiats after 9/11, the same ones that have famously doubled the number of Border Patrol agents to 21,000, funded the construction of the wall, and put Predator drones over the Rio Grande. The legislation is clear that Mexicans and other Hispanics were not the main target.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002, for example, established one of its key objectives as “preventing the entry of terrorists and terrorist weapons” by threat actors described as “transnational terrorists, transnational criminals and unauthorized migrants.”

The hallmark Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandated “a cohesive effort to intercept terrorists, find terrorist travel facilitators, and constrain terrorist mobility domestically and internationally.” That act created a Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center — still operating far from any limelight — to collect intelligence on human smuggling that could enable “clandestine terrorist travel,” far from the beefed-up American home border.

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 states that its purpose is “the prevention of all unlawful entries to the U.S., including entries by terrorists.”

There is much more, but you get the drift.

Homeland security minds had to come up with a special way to categorize these targeted migrants so that they could be given the requisite national security treatment. So they were called “Other Than Mexican” if they were citizens of some 35 to 40 Islamic “countries of special interest” in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa.

As the American effort developed around OTMs in later years after 9/11, the migrants would be further sub-categorized as “aliens from special interest countries,” “third country nationals,” or “special interest aliens (SIAs).” I prefer the latter.

In typical fashion for government, the legislation spawned strategic plans by which our homeland security agencies could carry out the statutes. To this day, all of them cite prevention of terrorist border infiltration as a top priority.

The first National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, for instance, described one of its top goals as “denying terrorists entry to the United States” by disrupting their travel “internationally and across and within our borders,” and undermining the “illicit networks” that facilitate the travel.

The first of several Border Patrol strategic plans in 2005 marked that agency’s new priority mission as: “establishing substantial probability of apprehending terrorists and their weapons as they attempt to enter illegally between ports of entry.”

Our immigration-control apparatus was thus put to work on Islamic counterterrorism, so you can almost understand how confusion could arise over time about which migrant set was their target.

The formal SIA interdiction policy — still essentially in place today — is traceable to a November 2004 memorandum from U.S. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar to all field agents. It listed 35 countries of interest, and instructed border agents to take eight actions when migratory citizens of the countries were apprehended. Most would be subject to national security database checks and interviews by intelligence agencies and FBI agents.

The 35 countries identified in a November 1, 2004, memorandum by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Chief David Aguilar to all field agents.

Tellingly, immigration-related federal agencies were assigned to chase SIAs and their smugglers, often in Latin America locations, while the U.S. Border Patrol was expanded to guard physical land borders to net them at home. Domestic law enforcement agencies such as ICE and the FBI were sent abroad to join American military and intelligence agencies, which had pivoted to the new mission of breaking the backs of SIA smugglers.

Primary responsibility for interdicting SIAs and SIA smuggling networks fell to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

To pave the way for the ICE counter-SIA campaign, the U.S. State Department expanded the number of cooperative counterterrorism agreements and attaché offices, particularly throughout Latin America where SIA smuggling routes ran. Not long ago, a top ICE official described the mission in congressional testimony as involving 240 agents in 48 foreign attaché offices, their mission being to “aggressively pursue, disrupt and dismantle foreign-based criminal travel networks — particularly those involved in the movement of aliens from countries of national concern.”

This was all cloak and daggers never intended for public consumption, hence the lack of government advertisement.

But Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano did offer a rare public acknowledgment in 2012, when she told reporters at an impromptu Arizona press conference:

There’s a whole category called SIAs — special interest aliens is what it stands for. We watch that very carefully. We have been working — not just with Mexico, but countries of Central America, in terms of following more closely people transiting the airports and the like. And so, again, our efforts there are to try to … take as much pressure off the physical land border as we can.

It simply is not the case that the U.S. has done nothing about this human traffic, and the question is whether the traffic has been seen and treated as a homeland security threat. We have, and it is.

The real question we should all be asking after Paris: How has the American counter-SIA effort been performing? And the short answer is “not so well” because of neglect, as I will explain next time.