Trump and the ‘immigrant terrorists’

With a misleading new report, Trump is trying to convince Americans that ‘terrorism’ is an exclusively foreign crime.

White terrorism Reuters protest photo
A protester holds a sign reading 'There are not 'many sides', Denounce domestic white terrorism' at a march against white nationalism in Times Square, August 13, 2017 [Joe Penney/Reuters]

“New report from DHS DOJ shows that nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted in terrorism related charges are foreign born. We have submitted to Congress a list of resources and reforms.” So tweeted US President Donald Trump on the afternoon of January 16, 2018, days before the US government shut down.

President Trump’s tweet, like so many others that have come before, was incorrect even by his administration’s lax standards. The International Terrorism Report (pdf) prepared by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice found that three out of four individuals convicted in the United States on “international terror-related” charges are foreign-born. “International” here means that this number includes individuals convicted for acts committed outside the US. 

That detail, of course, did not matter to Trump. His goal ever since he took power a year ago is to paint terrorism as a “foreign” problem, and immigration as the root of all that ails the US. 

Unsurprisingly, the report itself, which has been described as “misleading” and “confusing”, creates more problems than it solves. In its effort to pad the numbers of foreign-born or first-generation immigrants convicted of terrorist crimes since 9/11, it misstates statistics and creates new definitions of terrorism.

It does this to get Americans into thinking that terrorism is a foreign and particularly a “Muslim” crime that must be addressed by bans and banishments. It excludes white supremacist terrorists from the numbers it reports. 

The report, prepared under a March 2017 presidential executive order, finds that 549 individuals were charged with terrorism in US federal courts between 2001 and 2016. Of them, 254 were not US citizens, 148 were born abroad but later received US citizenship and 147 were US citizens by birth. Based on this, the White House declared that the “current immigration system jeopardizes our national security”.  

The conclusion drawn from these statistics is false. The numbers suggest that all those included went through the US immigration system, even as they count cases like that of Ahmed Abu Khattala, who was convicted of attacking the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. He was captured by a team of US military and FBI officials in Libya and transported to the US aboard a navy vessel in 2014. Obviously, Khattala never applied for a visa to be admitted to the US. 

In trying to increase the numbers of foreign-born terrorists, the Trump administration has included those who were extradited to the US or even committed crimes in other countries, neither of which would pose a national security threat and neither of which represents a failure of the immigration vetting system.

The report also fails to put the “threat of terrorism” into context.  As Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration analyst with the DC-based CATO Institute pointed out in his analysis of the report, the individual risk of an ordinary American being killed by a “foreign-born” terrorist is one in 145 million. Conversely, the average risk of being killed by a native-born American (a category left out by the report) is one in 40.6 million. The cumulative risk of being killed by any kind of terrorist was one in 32 million. And to put all this in perspective: The chance of an individual being killed in a non-terrorist homicide in the US is one in 19,325.

What the report does with numbers it also does with categories. In noting the number of total convictions, it doesn’t simply count crimes categorised as “terrorism”, but also includes the non-existent legal category of “terrorism-related” offences. The only definition available within US government databases describes this category as “any offence related to terrorism, homeland security and law enforcement as well as any other information.” This could mean anything, and what can mean anything means nothing. 

It is indisputable that the Trump administration manipulated statistics to paint terror as a foreign crime committed largely by Muslims. The “illustrative cases” presented in the report are all Muslim men. 

To be fair, this is not entirely a Trump administration habit; many US statutes, such as the Material Support for Terrorism statute, define “terrorist organisation” as one having foreign affiliations. The consequence is that white nationalist or domestic terrorism is excluded from prosecution under those statutes. With domestic terrorists never convicted under terror statutes that use these definitions, the only criminals considered terrorists are the foreign-born.  

The Trump administration’s attempt to link terrorism to immigration has been evident from its very first days. The timing of this report’s release, coming as it does in the midst of a stalemate over granting relief to undocumented “Dreamers” who were brought into the country as children, is proof of this.

The premise of the report is that unless borders are sealed, bans enacted, walls constructed and deportations executed, terrorists would continue pouring into the country. 

Days after the report was released, the US government did in fact shut down; a major point in Congress deliberations was a deal on immigration. In the weekend that followed, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to mark  Trump’s one-year anniversary in office, many whetted by the administration’s treatment of immigrants. 

Trump’s aggressive anti-immigration efforts, even when employing cheap scare-mongering tactics, will continue to face massive resistance and are, in the end, doomed to failure. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.