The same U.S. border sector that's seen tens of thousands of Latin American immigrants illegally stream into the United States has also been the site of crossings by people from nations with links to terrorism, raising serious national security concerns among Border Patrol agents who say they are ill-equipped to handle them.
Border Patrol agents say they are unable to determine the true intentions or even the precise nationality of the "OTMs," or "Other Than Mexicans," frequently apprehended and then simply released into the United States, a Department of Homeland Security official said. Immigrants from China, India, Pakistan and Yemen have all been caught at the border.
Determining the true intent of those who purport to be seeking asylum has taken on a new urgency with Tuesday's release of a video appearing to show the beheading of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamic State militants. U.S. and British intelligence agencies are scrambling to identify an Islamic State fighter in the video who speaks with British-accented English and threatens to kill a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff, a U.S. official told TheBlaze.
If an immigrant doesn't trigger a terror or criminal watch list alert, Border Patrol agents and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement adjudicators must rely solely on their word during interviews. Many who cross over are familiar with the U.S. legal system and have been coached by traffickers to dump any identification before crossing the border and to claim to be escaping persecution in their homeland.
"We're struggling to determine who is really who and we've released so many, we don't know if there are a number of terrorists or future terrorists among those we've caught, let alone those who've made it in without being spotted," an ICE official told TheBlaze. "Just because somebody doesn't show up as a terrorist on a watch list or with a criminal history doesn't mean they aren't one."
DHS employees say limited resources, lack of experience among interviewers and lack of cooperation from foreign governments have combined to create significant vulnerabilities at the border, with the potential to be exploited by terrorists or others who wish to do the U.S. harm.
In South Asia, particularly India, individuals are willing to pay cartels as much as $40,000 to be smuggled into the U.S., according to ICE and Border Patrol officials who spoke to TheBlaze. By comparison, immigrants from Central America and Mexico tend to pay less, between $6,000 and $10,000.
"There are spikes where we'll see large groups of young men from India coming into the country through the border," said the DHS official, who has worked along the border.
The official said the adjudication process many times is conducted by employees who are either not as experienced or not familiar with the culture of the people they are interviewing. The official added that many applying for asylum claim a "credible fear of persecution" in their home countries in order to stay in the United States. After they apply, most are released into the U.S. with a "notice to appear" in immigration court to argue their case. The majority never show up to court and disappear into the system, the official said.
For Indians, "almost always they claim to be persecuted by either a political party or for religious reasons," the official said.
There's another level that should cause concern, said Tufail Ahmad, the director of the South Asia Studies Project for the Middle East Media Research Institute: indications that in the past year, a growing number of young Indian Muslim men become supporters of the Islamic State.
Ahmad said based on news reports and social media accounts, at least 80 Indian Muslims appear to have left their country to fight alongside Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
"It has come as shock to Indian intelligence agencies and others that a number of Indian youth are now attracted to global jihad advocated by Syria-based Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Nusra, as well as the Islamic State led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi," Ahmad told TheBlaze. "Over the past few months, it emerged that a few youth from India's southern state of Tamil Nadu who were working in Singapore were radicalized there and went to fight in Syria."
Rio Grande Border Patrol spokesman Omar Zamora said that "special-interest aliens" — persons from countries connected to terrorism — "are a concern and it's something we're always mindful of."
"We turn these cases over to the DHS and coordinate closely with various other law enforcement agencies on security issues," Zamora told TheBlaze during a ride-along last week in Mission, Texas.
While U.S. law enforcement officials contend that the number of persons illegally entering from India as well as "special-interest aliens" is much smaller than people immigrating from Mexico or Central America, the increase in illegal immigration from India has been significant enough for DHS officials to take notice.
By the end of June 2013, roughly 14,610 people had applied for asylum under "credible fear," with three months left in the fiscal year, compared to 6,824 for the entire fiscal year in 2011, according to numbers provided by DHS to the Associated Press. Current asylum claims for the 2014 fiscal year could not be immediately obtained from DHS.
In 2013, up to two dozen Indians were being apprehended crossing the Arizona desert every night, and would be driven from detention facilities to a bus station where they would be released on their on recognizance, according to an investigation last year by the Arizona Republic.
"While there is always some risk that a non-Western terrorist might sneak into the United States, the major threat comes from two sources: one, jihadists returning from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere; and two, home-grown, self-motivated terrorists of the kind of Major Nidal and the Boston bombers," Ahmad said.
Federal law enforcement officials who spoke to TheBlaze said they were not aware that people from India were joining the Islamic State in Iraq and said more needed to be done to educate law enforcement officials who are charged with interviewing illegal immigrants after they are apprehended.
Federal officers interviewed by TheBlaze said the constantly changing environment and growing recruitment of foreign nationals into extremist organizations has made the nation more vulnerable.
"[The cartels] won't ask if these folks are connected to terrorist organizations — they just want to move their merchandise and humans across the border," said a federal law enforcement official. "It's time we take all these threats seriously and get our workers trained to determine the truth."
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