The U.S.-Mexico border is a chaotic mess. In the fiscal year ending in September, Border Patrol had 2,045,838 encounters with unlawful border crossers—the second highest in history.
There are three explanations for the border chaos. The first is the incredible U.S. demand for immigrant labor. Since President Joe Biden took office, there have been an average of about 10.4 million nonfarm job openings per month compared to just 6.7 million during the Trump administration. Second, U.S. immigration laws allow in very few legal immigrants. Third, the Biden administration has broadcast mixed messages that sometimes unintentionally encourage dangerous travel to the border.
The U.S. economy is paying immigrants to come, the law is stopping most of them from coming legally, and the administration is confused. The result is a massive increase in illegal immigration since Biden took office. Voters rightly fear this border chaos, which is why the number of border apprehensions is correlated with a desire to reduce immigration—even the legal variety. This voter response doesn’t make sense because less legal immigration will increase illegal immigration, but it is a predictable political response to chaos.
At the same time, the number of migrants apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border who were in the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) also increased to 169 in 2023, up from 98 last year and three in 2020. The TSDB, also known as the “watchlist,” is a government database that consolidates all federal terrorist watchlists of known or suspected terrorists, additional individuals who represent a potential threat to the United States, known affiliates of watchlisted individuals, and practically anyone else.
According to Christopher Piehota, the former director of the Terrorist Screening Center, the government can include individuals on the TSDB without a reasonable suspicion “to support immigration and border screening by the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security.” In other words, it is a broad list that is less meaningful than it seems at first blush.
I testified in front of Congress last month that the chance of terrorists illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is small. Since 1975, three terrorists crossed the U.S.-Mexico border as children and, over 20 years later, were arrested for planning an attack in New Jersey before they could carry it out. A terrorist could cross the U.S.-Mexico border, but the increase in TSDB apprehensions doesn’t necessarily indicate that it’s more likely now. Most of those TSDB hits are likely Colombian former members of revolutionary drug dealing groups like FARC that terrorized Colombia but have never attempted an attack in the United States.
Earlier this month, Hamas committed a stunningly brutal terrorist attack in Israel that murdered at least 1,400 people. Terrorists from Gaza broke through Israeli border barriers and murdered soldiers, women, children, and civilians of all ages. Americans justifiably reacted with horror and disgust at those attacks, but some policy makers and commentators used the news of those attacks in Israel to draw unreasonable parallels with U.S.-Mexico border security. Donald Trump is the most prominent Republican who linked Hamas’ terrorist attack in Israel to U.S.-Mexico border security, but Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Kevin McCarthy also responded to Hamas’ attack in Israel by worrying about terrorists crossing the U.S.-Mexico border like they crossed Israel’s border.
Border security is important, and there is an international terrorist threat that endangers Americans. Still, there is little comparison between the terrorist threat that Israel faces and security problems along the U.S.-Mexico border.
First, many of Israel’s borders are aspirational ceasefire lines that rockets, terrorists, warplanes, and soldiers frequently cross. The U.S.-Mexico border, by contrast, is riven with arms smuggling, drug smuggling, illegal immigration, and the violence that comes with all black-market activity. There are no bomb shelters for civilians to defend themselves against frequent rocket attacks and acts of terrorism and military incursions are not punctuating a long-simmering insurgency. The U.S.-Mexico border is standard; Israel’s borders are radically unstable.
Second, the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in Israel is about 33 times greater than in the United States. There have been about 200 murders for every person killed in a terrorist attack in the United States since 1990. In Israel, there are about two nonterrorist murders for every person killed in an attack during the same time—and most of the murders committed in the Hamas’ attack on Israel were carried out by terrorists who illegally crossed Israel’s borders. Not so in the United States, where zero people have been murdered in attacks by terrorists who illegally crossed the border.
Third, countries bordering the United States are not a source of terrorism. Since 1975, zero Mexican terrorists have even been arrested for plotting an attack, let alone accomplishing one. There have been 24 terrorists from the Western Hemisphere who attempted or committed attacks on U.S. soil since 1975. There were 12 from Cuba, three apiece from Haiti and from Canada, two apiece from the Bahamas and from Trinidad and Tobago, and one apiece from Honduras and from the Dominican Republic. Together, they murdered seven people in attacks and injured one person. There is no Mexican, Central American, or South American version of Hamas targeting the United States.
Terrorists could cross the U.S.-Mexico border and commit an attack here, but the facts show that it is an extremely small threat. Regardless, the U.S. government should continue to weed out potential security threats to protect Americans’ life, liberty, and property.
At a minimum, any serious comparison between the security challenges of the U.S.-Mexico border and Israel’s borders is inappropriate. Israelis measure their border security challenges by looking at a huge number of victims from terrorists who attacked across Gaza; Americans measure it by proxy measurements of mostly Colombian former members of FARC registering hits on overly broad terrorism databases. This analysis is not comforting to Israelis but should provide much comfort to Americans.