Trump officials exaggerate terrorist threat on southern border in tense briefing

As congressional leaders huddled with administration officials in the Situation Room, where wars and covert actions are monitored, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen threw out an alarming number that took members of Congress by surprise.

Sitting around a conference table in the secure White House basement chamber on Wednesday, Nielsen told the group that included President Donald Trump, adviser Jared Kushner and top congressional leaders of both parties that border officials had apprehended more than 3,000 terrorists and 17,000 criminals along the U.S.-Mexico border in the past year, according to a person familiar with the private meeting.

Nielsen was trying to persuade Democrats of the need for a complete wall along the border. But the claim backfired, with members pushing back on the claim three minutes into her remarks, the person said. To bolster the point, Trump publicly released a letter to all members of Congress making the point and staff too to television to emphasize the terrorist threat.

But border enforcement experts say those figures aren’t accurate.

“It’s very unlikely that 4,000 people on terrorist watch list have been apprehended as opposed to 4,000 people from travel banned countries were apprehended,” said Leon Fresco, who served as deputy assistant attorney general for the office of immigration litigation in the Obama administration. “If so, where are they?”

Homeland Security officials are now saying that 3,755 known or suspected terrorists were stopped trying to entering the U.S. by land in FY 17. During a news conference in the Rose Garden Friday, Nielsen described those captured as “special interest aliens.”

“Those are aliens who the intel community has identified as a concern,” Nielsen said. “They either have travel patterns that are identified as terrorist travel patterns or they have known or suspected ties to terrorism.”

But statistics from the Justice Department and DHS belie Nielsen’s numbers. In fiscal 2017, DHS encountered 2,554 people on the terrorist watch list traveling to the United States. But of those, only 335 were attempting to enter by land.

The majority, 2,170 were attempting to enter through airports, and 49 were attempting to enter by sea.

Those inside the contentious meeting Wednesday said Nielsen spoke about the terrorism threat for three minutes when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi questioned whether those numbers included people crossing the border illegally.

Nielsen said that was not the case.

In the letter, Trump criticized Democrats for not allowing Nielsen to give a more in-depth presentation on the depth and severity of what he called the humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border.

The stand-off continued through Friday, where Trump held another tense meeting with leaders demonstrating how far apart the two sides continue to be.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer described the discussion as contentious and Trump warned the shutdown could last months, if not years.

“The bottom line is we made a plea to the president -- ‘don’t hold millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of workers hostage,’” Schumer said.

At the news conference, Trump appeared to back off the threat and promised a working group would meet over the weekend to try and find a compromise with Democrats, who want to reopen the shuttered parts of the government besides DHS. But he also warned that he could use emergency powers to build the wall if needed.

“We can call a national emergency because of the security,” Trump said. “I haven’t done it. I may do it but we can call a national emergency and build it very quickly.”

In his letter, Trump outlined that 17,000 adults with criminal records were apprehended by Border Patrol. He noted that more than 20,000 minors were smuggled into the United States and that the immigration court’s backlog is years long with nearly 800,000 cases waiting to be heard.

There has been a 2,000 percent increase in asylum claims over the last five years, with 9 in 10 claims coming from Central American migrants.

But Trump did not mention the terrorist figures. He did mention the threat during his Rose Garden briefing Friday.

He warned that “vast number of vehicles” filled with human smugglers and terrorists can simply drive across open spaces of the desert where there is no wall or barrier. He acknowledged most people don’t talk about the terrorist threat, but Trump said it’s the easy place for terrorists to get into the United States.

“The border is a much more dangerous problem. It’s a problem of national security. It’s a problem of terrorists,” Trump said during the briefing. “They find it’s the easiest place to come through. They drive right in and make a left. It’s not going to happen.”

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.