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Number of people on terrorist watchlist stopped at southern U.S. border has risen

So far in fiscal year 2023, 160 migrants whose identities match those on the list have been stopped trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, compared to 100 in 2022.
Immigrants wait to be transported and processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas
Immigrants wait to be transported and processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas, on May 12.John Moore / Getty Images

This year U.S. border agents have encountered a “growing number of individuals” on the FBI’s terrorist watchlist trying to enter the country via the southern border, according to the Homeland Threat Assessment released Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security. 

As of July, 160 migrants whose identities match those on the Terrorist Screening Dataset had been apprehended by Customs and Border Protection trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border during fiscal year 2023, compared to 100 in fiscal year 2022. Fiscal years end on Sept. 30.

The number of all people, including U.S. citizens, on the terrorist watchlist who had been stopped at the southern border as of July this fiscal year was 216, compared to 165 in all of fiscal year 2022. The number of border crossers on the watchlist was higher in fiscal year 2019, at 280.

A DHS official told reporters that the increase from fiscal 2022 to 2023 is consistent with the overall increase in migrants crossing the border and the rising number of migrants coming from areas of conflict.

The number of migrants from the Eastern Hemisphere more than doubled, from 110,000 in fiscal year 2022 to 228,000 so far in fiscal year 2023, the Homeland Threat Assessment said. The Eastern Hemisphere includes Africa and the Middle East, among other areas.

“The increase in encounters of individuals on the terror screening data set are largely commensurate with the increased flow to the border more broadly,” a DHS official told reporters. “Naturally, as we see more people arrive at the border from different countries, we are more likely going to see an increase in individuals who might be on the watchlist or directly related to terror activity.” 

Those on the watchlist include people who may be family members of suspected terrorists; their crossings make up just 0.01% of the more than 1 million crossings of the southern U.S. border in the last fiscal year, another DHS official said. 

“DHS is and always will work tirelessly to screen, vet and prevent anyone who poses a threat from entering the country,” the DHS official said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., then the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, said in 2016 that more than 1 million people were on the terrorist watchlist. (The "no fly" list, a subset of the watchlist, is much smaller.) Historically, people on the watchlist are far more likely to be stopped entering U.S. airports than crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The Homeland Threat Assessment did not say how many airport travelers were found to be on the watchlist in 2023.

The assessment also found that foreign and domestic terrorists are likely to continue to be a threat to U.S. homeland security in 2023. The threat of people who are radicalized in the U.S. “will remain high but unchanged,” the officials said.

Americans are much more likely to die from illegal drug overdoses than terrorist attacks, the report noted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data said more than 100,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses in the last year, with more than 75% of those overdoses coming from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

“While terrorists pose an enduring threat to the Homeland, drugs kill and harm far more people in the United States annually. The increased supply of fentanyl and variations in its production during the last year have increased the lethality of an already deadly drug, a trend likely to persist in 2024,” the threat assessment said.