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White House fuels immigration debate with terror stats

  • Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 16, 2018. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON >> The Trump administration released statistics today showing that the vast majority of people convicted of terrorism charges in the United States over the last 15 years were born in foreign countries. The report came amid a politically-charged push by the Trump administration to enact new restrictions on immigration, in part by arguing that the current system puts the nation at risk.

The 11-page report, parts of which were confusing and in some respects misleading, highlighted cases in which immigrants were linked to terror plots after being admitted to the country as part of the diversity visa lottery, or because they were related to U.S. citizens or legal residents.

Entitled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” the report concluded that 3 out of 4 convicted terrorists were foreign-born.

“This report shows, once again, that our current immigration system jeopardizes our national security,” concluded a White House fact sheet touting the findings, which were compiled by the Justice and Homeland Security departments.

Over recent days, the debate over a potential immigration compromise devolved into a bickering match over racially charged comments and profanity-laced phrases. Today’s report was an attempt by the Trump administration to use government-compiled data to make a loftier, policy-based argument about the president’s initiative for a merit-based immigration system.

Testifying on Capitol Hill, Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, called the report’s findings “truly chilling data.” She pointed to the case of Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, an Uzbekistan-born man who was admitted to the United States in the diversity visa lottery in 2011. He pleaded guilty in 2015 to conspiring to support the Islamic State after posting a threat on an Uzbek-language website to kill President Barack Obama in an act of martyrdom.

But the statistics were notable as much for what they did not contain as for what they did.

They included cases — a senior administration official who insisted on anonymity to detail the report could not say how many — in which foreigners were extradited to the United States to face trial. That means they did not, in fact, enter the country “through our immigration system,” as the White House fact sheet asserted.

The statistics also included terrorism-related charges for attacks or other offenses carried out overseas, rather than inside the United States. Additionally, they omitted domestic terrorism incidents that have accounted for a substantial number of terror-related deaths over the same 15-year period.

And while the report highlighted cases in which the offender entered through the diversity lottery or because of family ties to legal immigrants, the White House official could not say how many people in each of those categories had been convicted of terrorism.

The senior administration official said there had not been enough time to compile such statistics, but suggested that even one case in which an immigrant went on to commit a terrorism-related offense should be grounds for discontinuing the program.

He said repeatedly that the United States should have an immigration system that promotes assimilation and the exclusion of anyone who could potentially become radicalized.

The report was drawn up to comply with an executive order that Trump issued in March to ban foreigners from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The order, which has since expired and been replaced with a new travel ban, required the Justice and Homeland Security departments to collect and publicly release information on the number of foreign nationals in the United States who had been charged with terrorism-related offenses.

According to a Justice Department database, the report found that at least 549 individuals had been convicted of international terrorism-related charges in federal courts between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2016.

A Homeland Security analysis said 402 of those, or about 73 percent, were foreign-born. That included 254 who were not U.S. citizens, 148 who were naturalized and became citizens, and 147 who were citizens by birth.

Under the March order, the report was supposed to have been released in September. Today, the senior administration official conceded that it was overdue but denied that it was being released now to influence the escalating debate over an immigration compromise.

Going forward, he said, it would be updated and issued every 180 days.

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