terrorism

45,000 “Special Interest Aliens” Caught Since 2007, But No U.S. Terrorist Attacks from Illegal Border Crossers

President Trump claimed last week that “people are pouring into our country, including terrorists.” This came after his unsubstantiated claim that Middle Easterners are traveling in the caravan. Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) fellow Todd Bensman has repeatedly defended these types of claims by equating immigrants from “countries of interest” with “terrorists.” This conflation is common and rarely challenged as Homeland Security officials and members of Congress frequently describe immigrants from these countries as a terrorist threat. Despite Border Patrol apprehending tens of thousands of foreign nationals from these countries of interest and many thousands more who have undoubtedly entered illegally, not a single person has been killed by a terrorist who entered as an illegal border crosser from any of the countries of interest.

Special Interest Alien Apprehensions

The terminology used to describe these immigrants varies considerably between sources. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General defined the term “specially designated countries” to mean countries “that have shown a tendency to promote, produce, or protect terrorist organizations or their members.” Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar described “Special interest countries” as “basically countries designated by our intelligence community as countries that could export individuals that could bring harm to our country in the way of terrorism.”

These definitions could apply to nearly every country in the world, as just about every major country has “produced” or “exported” at least one terrorist. With several exceptions, the lists have consisted primarily of countries with large Muslim populations. The designated countries have changed repeatedly over the years:

In 2003, DHS released a list of 52 countries. In 2004, the list included 35 countries, two of which were new. In 2007, the list was referenced in a news article, and though the full list was not quoted, it included another country (Tanzania) that was not on either of the prior two lists. In 2018, DHS released yet another list of countries where CBP “had Enforcement Actions against aliens from the following ‘Special Interest Aliens’ countries for FY18.” This partial list included yet five more countries that were not on the prior lists. Altogether, these lists have contained 63 countries. Only 14 have shown up on all the lists.

From 2007 to 2017, Border Patrol apprehended 45,006 immigrants from any of the countries ever designated as a “country of interest” (See Table 1). During the same period, it apprehended 4,109 from countries that made it onto all three lists. Given the inconsistency in these lists and for sake of completeness, Figure 1 shows the annual number of special interest aliens apprehended by Border Patrol separated by the different lists and those apprehended from countries that appeared at least once on a single list.  Fiscal Year 2007 is the earliest year that Border Patrol has made the number of apprehensions by citizenship publicly available.

Figure 1: Special Interest Alien Border Patrol Apprehensions

Center for Immigration Studies Shows a Very Small Threat from Terrorists Crossing the Mexican Border

Todd Bensman, the Senior National Security Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), wrote a recent report entitled “Have Terrorists Crossed Our Border?” in which he presents a list of  “15 suspected terrorists have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, or en route, since 2001.”  Bensman lists these 15 individuals, some of which don’t have names, and describes their actions.  He writes that his research is based on publicly available

Counterterrorism Spending

The Stimson Center’s new study group report found that the federal government spent about $2.8 trillion on counterterrorism (CT) activities since 9/11.  The report seeks to account for all federal government spending on CT efforts divided into the four broad categories of defense emergency and overseas contingency operations, war-related state/USAID, other foreign aid, and government-wide Homeland Security.  The defense emergency and overseas contingency operations spending category accounts for about $1.7 trillion or over 60 percent of the $2.8 trillion spent.  War-related state/USAID and other foreign aid account for a relatively small $138 billion and $12 billion, respectively.  Government-wide Homeland Security spending makes up the rest at $978.5 billion since 9/11.

The big question the report does not attempt to answer is: Was all that spending worth it?  Did that spending result in fewer people killed by terrorists on U.S. soil?  One of the distinguished study group members is my Cato Institute colleague John Mueller who has spilled much ink trying to estimate the effectiveness of CT spending.  Mueller provides some back of the envelope estimates to answer the question of whether this CT spending was worth it in his recent panel discussion on the Stimson Center’s report.  After talking with Mueller, I decided to add some more analysis to show that an unreasonably large number of American lives would have to have been saved for the costs of CT spending to be justified.

For the costs of CT spending to equal the benefits in terms of the value of lives saved, it would have to have saved 188,740 lives, or 11,796 lives per year, since 9/11.  Narrowing down to just domestic CT spending on government-wide Homeland Security projects shows that spending on just that set of subprograms would have to have prevented the murder of 65,233 people, or 4,077 per year, to break even.  From 2002 through 2017, my latest estimate is that 172 total people were murdered on U.S. soil by all terrorists (Islamic, non-Islamic, domestic, U.S.-born, foreign-born, white supremacists, etc.).  Thus, all CT spending would have to have saved 1,097 times as many lives as were actually taken by terrorists in attacks on U.S. soil for the costs of CT spending to equal the benefits in terms of lives saved.  Focusing on just government-wide Homeland Security CT spending shows that it would have to have saved 379 times as many lives as were actually killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil to break even.  It is difficult to estimate a counterfactual but it would take a very creative imagination to honestly believe that post-9/11 CT spending actually saved that many lives by preventing terrorist attacks.

Methodology

The first step is estimating the value of a statistical human life to compare with the cost of CT spending.  This is an emotional and fraught way to measure human life.  As a father and a husband, I understand this emotional reaction very well but the fact remains that if the government spends more than the statistical value of life to save a life through enhanced CT, then that means that other people died because of neglected safety in other areas.  As a hypothetical example, suppose the value of a statistical life is $15 million.  If the government spends $30 million to save one life by spending on X then that means that one person, at least, died who did not have to if that money was spent where it would save more lives.  Thus, spending that amount of money on reducing the risk of X results in more deaths than otherwise would have occurred.  Although emotional and hard to calculate, estimating the statistical value of life can help policymakers save more lives.  The death of human beings is the largest and most significant cost of terrorism but not the only one as other forms of destruction are also costly but relatively minor compared to death.  For the purposes of simplicity, I will focus on the cost in terms of human life.   

As I wrote in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) produced an initial estimate that valued each life saved from an act of terrorism at $6.5 million, then doubled that value (for unclear reasons) to $13 million per life saved.  Adjusting for inflation raises that estimate to about $7.5 million.  Hahn, Lutter, and Viscusi use data from everyday risk-reduction choices made by the American public to estimate that the value of a statistical life is $15 million.  I use $15 million in this blog post as it is the largest number.

The Toronto “Van Incident” and Terrorism in Canada

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said that there is no evidence that yesterday’s “van incident,” where Alek Minassian murdered 10 people and injured 15 others on a busy sidewalk with a van, was a terrorist attack.  To count as a terrorist attack, Minassian’s motivations must have been political, religious, or social in nature beyond simply a desire to terrorize or murder others.  Minassian’s motives are so far unclear with much speculation rega

More Americans Die in Animal Attacks than in Terrorist Attacks

Comparing the risk of dying in a terrorist attack to a common household accident like slipping in the bathtub is inappropriate.  After all, inanimate objects like bathtubs do not intend to kill, so people rightly distinguish them from murderers and terrorists.  My research on the hazard posed by foreign-born terrorists on U.S. soil focuses on comparing that threat to homicide, since both are intentional actions meant to kill or otherwise harm people.  Homicide is common in the United States, so it is not necessarily the best comparison to deaths in infrequent terror attacks.  Yesterday, economist Tyler Cowen wrote about another comparable hazard that people are aware of, that is infrequent, where there is a debatable element of intentionality, but that does not elicit nearly the same degree of fear: deadly animal attacks.

Cowen’s blog post linked to an academic paper by medical doctors Jared A. Forrester, Thomas G. Weiser, and Joseph H. Forrester who parsed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mortality data to identify those whose deaths were caused by animals in the United States. According to their paper, animals killed 1,610 people in the United States from 2008 through 2015. Hornets, wasps, and bees were the deadliest and were responsible for 29.7 percent of all deaths, while dogs were the second deadliest and responsible for 16.9 percent of all deaths. 

The annual chance of being killed by an animal was 1 in 1.6 million per year from 2008 through 2015.  The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil was 1 in 30.1 million per year during that time.  The chance of being murdered by a native-born terrorist was 1 in 43.8 million per year, more than twice as deadly as foreign-born terrorists at 1 in 104.2 million per year.  The small chance of being murdered in an attack committed by foreign-born terrorists has prompted expensive overreactions that do more harm than good, such as the so-called Trump travel ban, but address smaller risks than those posed by animals.

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