Michael Smolens: The threat of terrorism shouldn’t be an excuse to shut down the border

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The threat of terrorism not only needs to be taken seriously, it must be put into proper perspective.

FBI Director Christopher Wray sought to do that Tuesday when he told a Senate committee the ongoing war in the Middle East “has raised the threat of an attack against Americans in the United States to a whole other level.”

He urged Americans to go about their daily lives, but to be more wary about it.

“This is not a time for panic, but it is a time for vigilance,” he said. “We shouldn’t stop conducting our daily lives, going to schools, houses of worship and so forth.”

Wray did not suggest any change in U.S. border policy.

That’s worth noting after a handful of local Republican politicians called for a partial shutdown of the U.S.-Mexico border last week because of rumors that Hamas- or Hezbollah-linked fighters may be trying to enter the country.

County Supervisor Jim Desmond, supervisor candidate Amy Reichert and congressional candidates Margarita Wilkinson and Bill Wells, the mayor of El Cajon, proposed closing the border to all new immigrants to limit immigration in general.

Wray noted, “(w)e are not currently tracking an imminent, credible threat from a foreign terrorist organization, a structured attack here or something like that, but it is something that we think heightened vigilance is warranted for.”

He emphasized concern for possible terrorism from people already in the United States who may be inspired by the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and noted calls from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to target Jewish communities here and in Europe.

Encounters by U.S. authorities with people on the nation’s terrorist watchlist have grown dramatically over the last couple of years. That has come as migration to the U.S. border has surged.

Along the southern border, border agents encountered 169 people on the list in fiscal year 2023. The number at the country’s northern border was nearly three times higher, according to Emily Alvarenga and David Hernandez of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

A lot of people on the watchlist have ties to Central American left- and right-wing paramilitary groups, according to CBS News.

The threat of domestic terrorism also continues to be an ongoing concern for the Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection last week said there was “no indication of Hamas-directed foreign fighters seeking” to enter the U.S.

Authorities won’t rule anything out and concerns about terrorism shouldn’t be taken lightly. They shouldn’t be exploited for political advantage, either.

Reports of extremists entering the United States by land from Mexico or Canada are rare, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

As for extremists or terrorists coming here from Gaza, that would be difficult for the time being because people there can’t leave through border crossings into Israel in the north and, for the most part, Egypt to the south, according to news reports.

The notion of a Hamas threat at the border took hold among Republicans almost immediately after Hamas massacred civilians in southern Israel on Oct. 7, which triggered subsequent bombing of Gaza by Israeli forces.

That led some to believe there would be a mass exodus of Palestinians trying to get to the United States — possibly with extremists mixed among them.

Led by former President Donald Trump, GOP presidential candidates and other top Republicans called for shutting the southern border to varying degrees.

A memo allegedly from the Customs and Border Protection office in San Diego alerting agents of the potential of foreign fighters crossing the border added fuel to the fire.

CBP, as is its practice, would not confirm the veracity of the memo but downplayed any threat from Hamas or Hezbollah. San Diego’s Fox 5 said the San Diego Border Patrol Sector issued a statement that the document “is not a Border Patrol product.”

Two days after the Hamas attack, before the disputed memo, Trump claimed in an online post that “The same people that raided Israel are pouring into our once beautiful USA, through our TOTALLY OPEN SOUTHERN BORDER?”

That wasn’t remotely true.

Also, anyone with even passing knowledge about the southern border is aware it is far from “totally open.”

There are certainly disagreements over immigration policies and border enforcement, and the volume of migrants has at times overwhelmed the process and facilities. Attempted illegal crossings continue as they always have. It may be a dysfunctional system in the eyes of many, but an open border it is not.

Existing U.S. law does aim to protect against people who intend to do the country harm. The Immigration and Nationality Act already blocks potential extremist threats under Section 212 (f), which gives broad authority to bar people who aren’t U.S. citizens from entering the country if they are deemed to be “detrimental to the interests of the United States,” according to The Associated Press.

There’s no question the high level of migration to the United States is taxing the nation’s tolerance and even Democrats are calling for more action from President Joe Biden. The increase in encounters with people on the terrorist watchlist — officially known as the Terrorist Screening Dataset — is worrisome.

Not everyone on the watchlist is a known extremist, however. They can range from family members to friends to individuals directly engaged in terrorist activity, according to a 2023 DHS report.

The number of watchlist contacts is a minuscule portion of overall migrant apprehensions — which reached nearly 2.5 million in fiscal year 2023. It would be nice to think that more people being arrested suggests the system is working, but that idea doesn’t exactly give great comfort.

Desmond and the other local Republicans expressed legitimate concerns about the asylum process and illegal border crossings.

In recent weeks, federal authorities have dropped off thousands of migrants at transit stations across the county.

The border problems aren’t likely to abate without bipartisan action in Congress — which hasn’t happened on this issue in decades — or economic and governmental reforms across the Western Hemisphere.

There are plenty of urgent border matters that need to be addressed. The specter of terrorism shouldn’t distract from that.

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