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EXCLUSIVE
Immigration

Biden admin to build intelligence-gathering cell to track groups of migrants headed north

An intelligence cell run by DHS will expand biometric data collection from migrants and monitor social media disinformation that may spur mass migrant movements.

WASHINGTON — Planning is underway at the Department of Homeland Security to build an intelligence-gathering cell that would more closely monitor and better predict the movements of groups of migrants to the U.S., such as the nearly 30,000 Haitians who arrived in Texas last month, according to a copy of the plans obtained by NBC News.

The new cell, to be operational by the end of the month, would supply the agency with “indications and warnings” of possible migrant surges by collecting intelligence from DHS personnel in Central and South America, seek to establish aerial surveillance of trucks and migrant camps massing on borders and increase communication with the U.S. intelligence community and law enforcement agencies in other countries, according to the planning document.

With that information in hand, the officials said, DHS could then allocate resources to areas of the border where surges are expected and counter messages spread by cartels and those on social media who falsely claim that the U.S. will allow all migrants arriving now to stay.

Another senior DHS official, explaining that the U.S. strategy is to counter false messages before migrants embark on dangerous journeys, said, “Once they’re in Mexico, it’s too late.”

The collection and dissemination of intelligence about migration movements used to fall to DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis, two current and two former DHS officials said, but the office stopped regularly creating reports about migrant movements during the Trump administration.

The two former officials, who worked in the Trump administration, said that the office was largely weakened during the previous administration but that Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement did much of their own intelligence-gathering.

But the two current officials said the Biden administration has had to rebuild the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis so that all parts of DHS get the same reliable information about groups that might be coming to the U.S. border in real time.

“The Trump administration’s almost singular focus on building a border wall as the solution to stopping illegal migration and illegal drugs from coming into the country actually resulted in the opposite. It allowed key intelligence and operational capabilities to atrophy,” one of the officials, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, said on the condition of anonymity.

Senior leaders at CBP, ICE, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis and the Coast Guard met Wednesday to solidify the plans, the officials said.

In the short term, each agency would supply personnel to the cell, operating out of Washington, to gather information about waves of migrants who might soon be making their way to the U.S., the officials said. Part of their mission will be to build and monitor algorithms that can monitor social media chatter about migration movements. Often, immigrants communicate by Facebook and WhatsApp to organize.

More than 20,000 migrants from Haiti are gathered in northern Colombia and Panama, for example, and may soon decide to try to immigrate to the U.S.

In the long term, according to other documents obtained by NBC News, DHS would collect more biometric data about migrants as they cross borders on the way to the U.S. so more is known about who might soon be approaching the U.S. border, the documents say.

The Office of Intelligence and Analysis would also work with countries like Colombia, Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to enter into agreements that would allow for more intelligence, surveillance and recognizance, according to the copy of the plans, significantly increasing the amount of both human and signals intelligence DHS gathers in the region.

The goal is to “institutionalize” the intelligence-gathering systems so future administrations cannot dismantle them, the officials said.

A DHS spokesperson confirmed the plans to NBC News. “DHS recently developed a new analytic effort that combines law enforcement and intelligence resources to improve our ability to operationally prepare for large numbers of migrants that may arrive along the southwest border. This critical initiative — which is led by the Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the United States Coast Guard — will strengthen existing efforts such as Operational Sentinel that counter transnational criminal organizations, including those that smuggle illicit narcotics and migrants across the border.”

Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who has sued the Biden administration over its policies that keep asylum-seekers from entering the country, said increasing surveillance of immigrants is a step in the wrong direction.

“Rather than creating a surveillance system to deter migrants seeking protection, the administration ought to focus on complying with its legal and moral obligation to provide desperate asylum-seekers with a hearing,” Gelernt said.