May 27, 2024  |  
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Anna Giaritelli, Homeland Security Reporter

NextImg:Arrests of people on FBI terror watch list crossing border illegally hits 100-year high

Border Patrol caught more than 172 known or suspected terrorists illegally entering the United States from Mexico or Canada over the past 12 months, finishing out the government's fiscal year with the highest number in national history, according to new data released Saturday.

The figure is a far cry from single-digit terror watch list numbers seen throughout the Trump administration. The dramatic increase to double and now triple-digits over the past several years has especially drawn concern from Democratic and Republican lawmakers as violence grows in the Middle East.


Of roughly 2,037,000 arrests at the southern border between October 2022 and September 2023, federal law enforcement agents determined 172 were on the Federal Bureau of Investigation terror watch list, also known as the Terrorist Screening Database. The database is separate from the No-Fly list and it contains thousands of names of individuals who are themselves involved with a terrorist group or are related to or associated with someone involved in terrorism.

The 172 figure surpassed the previous record of 98 people in 2022 and 16 people in 2021, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. The Border Patrol was established in 1924 and this year's arrests surpassed all others on record.

Of all arrests, 169 occurred at the southern border compared to three on the U.S.-Canada border.

Just 0.008% of the more than 2 million arrested illegal immigrants this year were determined to be a match with the terror watch list, which immigrant advocates in the past have pointed to as being an overblown issue.

While more people on the terror watch list were actually encountered at land, air, and sea ports of entry, typically attempting to fly into the country or drive across through a customs checkpoint, it is the individuals who crossed illegally and attempted to evade police who concern experts the most.

At ports of entry along the northern border, such as where vehicles go through inspection checkpoints and airports, authorities encountered 484 people on the terror watch list. At crossings along the southern border, customs officers encountered 80 individuals.

The situation at the southern border has overwhelmed the 19,000-person Border Patrol. Over the past two years, many illegal immigrants have been observed on camera and other technology entering the country, only to get away due to a shortage of agents to pursue all sightings because of how Mexican smuggling organizations, known as cartels, use people and drugs to divert agents.

Migrants wait for U.S. authorities, between a barbed-wire barrier and the border fence at the US-Mexico border, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Thursday, May 11, 2023. Migrants rushed across the Mexico border Thursday in hopes of entering the U.S. in the final hours before pandemic-related asylum restrictions are lifted. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

Members of Congress told the Washington Examiner that more needs to be done to secure the U.S. border after seeing how militants from a foreign terrorist organization broke across the Israel-Gaza border and committed mass atrocities.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said the threat was serious, particularly given that 1.5 million people have been observed illegally entering the country since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, but law enforcement was unable to apprehend them. Illegal immigrants who are not arrested cannot be checked against U.S. criminal or terror records.

“It only took 19 al Qaeda operatives to kill nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001," Cotton, who is the ranking member for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism, said. "Many, many times that number of known terrorists have surely crossed our southern border since Joe Biden took office. His open border is the gravest terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) expressed a strong desire to prevent terrorists from entering the U.S., particularly by way of the southern border and said as the ranking member on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Congress increased CBP's budget by 15% over the past two years.

"Border security is national security. The horrific attacks in Israel reaffirm the need to secure our border and prevent terrorists from entering our country," Cuellar said. "I will continue to push for solutions that our men and women on the front line need, such as more border technology and personnel at ports of entry and in between ports."

A group claiming to be from India walk past open border wall storm gates after crossing through the border fence in the Tucson Sector of the U.S.-Mexico border, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Lukeville, Ariz. Migrants walk through storm gates currently open in the towering wall of steel bollards due to possible rains during the monsoon season that ends in two weeks. There were several heavy downpours in the area this year and CBP said rushing water can damage the gates, wall, border road, and local flora and fauna. (AP Photo/Matt York)

However, concern remains over the Border Patrol's ability to screen even those encountered.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General found in a report released this summer that Border Patrol agents in Arizona arrested then released into the country an illegal immigrant on the FBI's terror watch list, which set off a weeks-long effort by federal agencies to locate and re-arrest the individual.

One Border Patrol agent interviewed by the inspector general staff explained that agents were under pressure from management to process immigrants in custody expeditiously, which led to the security failure.


Up until early 2021, when Biden took office, CBP published press releases on its website when its Border Patrol agents apprehended a terror watch list individual. That practice and transparency have ceased over the past two years. CBP has not disclosed what prompted it to stop disclosing these types of arrests.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the Senate in August 2022 that although there was no "imminent threat from a foreign terrorist organization on the border at the moment," terrorists were looking for any vulnerability to "exploit.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies during the House Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation," in Rayburn Building on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.