‘Growing number’ of people on U.S. terrorist watchlist encountered at border, DHS says

A growing number of people on the U.S. Terrorist Watchlist were encountered at U.S. borders in 2023, homeland security officials said on Thursday, noting in an annual report that a record number of migrant arrivals had “complicated border and immigration security” this past year.

Approximately 160 non-U.S. citizens on the watchlist attempted to cross into the United States in 2023, “most of whom were encountered attempting to illegally enter between ports of entry,” the Department of Homeland Security said in its annual Homeland Threat Assessment. That is an increase from 2022, when border officials encountered roughly 100 individuals on the watchlist attempting to enter the country.

“We expect continued high numbers of migrant encounters over the next year because traditional drivers of migration to the United States remain unchanged and frustration with waiting for legal migration pathways may grow,” the report reads. “Terrorists and criminal actors may exploit the elevated flow and increasingly complex security environment to enter the United States.”

A Homeland Security official told reporters on Thursday that every individual encountered at the border faces biometric and biographic screening and vetting. Additionally, the official noted, Customs and Border Protection has expanded information-sharing agreements with international partners “to enhance their ability to prevent, detect, and investigate trafficking and other crimes.”

“Encounters of known or suspected terrorists attempting to cross the Southern Border are uncommon. These encounters represent significantly less than 0.01 percent of total encounters per fiscal year in recent years,” one homeland security official said. “These encounters may include individuals who are not known or suspected terrorists, such as encounters with family members.”

The report states that individuals traveling to the United States from the Eastern Hemisphere have doubled in the last year — contributing, in part, to the surge in encounters of individuals on the watchlist, because many of these migrants “require additional processing and repatriation resources.”

Individuals on the Terrorist Screening Data Set, also known as the Terrorist Watchlist, may be included because they are known associations with watchlisted individuals — such as family members — or because they are directly engaged in terrorist activity.

“This is a feature of the broader global migration trends we are seeing, and those trends cause many people in conflict zones around the world to seek to migrate to the Western Hemisphere, and ultimately to the United States,” another homeland security official said.

The report also forecast that the threat of domestic terrorism would remain high, but unchanged, entering 2024, and that the primary threat to American lives would remain illicit drugs produced and imported from Mexico.