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Donald Trump’s team misleads in tying international terrorism report to immigration

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde January 22, 2018

President Donald Trump claims a report on international terrorism convictions bolsters the need for changes to the U.S. immigration system.
Why? Because almost three-quarters of the 549 convictions were of individuals born outside of the United States.

"New report from DOJ & DHS shows that nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges are foreign-born. We have submitted to Congress a list of resources and reforms....

....we need to keep America safe, including moving away from a random chain migration and lottery system, to one that is merit-based," he tweeted.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen bemoaned the risk to national security, with Nielsen tying the exposure to "pre-9/11" admissions policies.

There is significant missing context, however, in both the report and its promotion by the White House.

Officials have not, for instance, pointed out that some of the convicted individuals did not live in the United States.

They have also not shown how many of the convicts came through the diversity visa lottery program or family-based sponsorship — two policies the Trump administration wants to change.

And you wouldn’t know it from Trump’s broad tweet, but some of the terrorist acts were committed outside of the United States. And the report did not touch on a serious challenge: terrorism committed by Americans.

The report from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security came as Democrats, and some Republicans, push for a deal to benefit young immigrants who came to the United States as children and are now at risk of deportation, so-called "Dreamers." Trump and certain Republican allies in Congress are unwilling to reach an agreement without funding for Trump’s border wall and changes to other immigration policies.

Here’s our guide to getting around the spin about the report.

No mention of homegrown, domestic terrorism

The report leaves out information on a significant threat to the U.S. population: domestic terrorism.

An April 2017 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that from Sept. 12, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2016 there were 85 attacks in the United States by domestic or "homegrown" violent extremists, resulting in 225 deaths. Most of the incidents were committed by far-right violent extremists, but radical Islamist violent extremists caused the most deaths.

Report not clear on acts committed in the United States

The report said that at least 549 individuals were convicted of international terrorism-related charges in U.S. federal courts, between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2016.

Of those 549 individuals:

• 254 were not U.S. citizens;

• 148 were foreign-born, naturalized U.S. citizens;

• 147 were U.S. citizens by birth.

The report does not detail, however, how many of the convictions happened for acts within the United States.

Convictions can stem from investigations of terrorist acts planned or committed outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, over which federal criminal jurisdiction exists, and those within the United States involving international terrorists and terrorist groups.

Broadly speaking, people brought over to the United States to face trial for terrorism charges can include people who did not plot attacks against the United States, but targeted Americans abroad, said David Sterman, a policy analyst in New America’s International Security program.

Undefined connection between crime and immigration

The report cites some examples of convicted immigrants who came to the United States through the visa lottery program or family-based migration. But it does not specify how many of the 549 convicted came through those venues.

"If the ‘pre-9/11’ immigration policy that the press release is referring to is the family-sponsored and diversity categories, then the statement is absurd," said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Since 9/11, 13 people have been killed in terrorist attacks committed on U.S. soil by foreign-born terrorists who entered on green cards, Nowrasteh said. The most recent example is Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, from Uzbekistan, the suspect in the New York City attack in October 2017 that killed eight people, he said.

"While every one of those deaths is a tragedy, the DHS/DOJ numbers certainly don’t show that they are a grave danger," Nowrasteh said. "They are a threat that the government needs to address but not by restricting immigration."

The report assumes a link between being born outside the U.S. and entering as a terrorist, Sterman wrote in a New America post detailing problems with the report. "Yet most foreign-born terrorism convicts radicalized in the United States and did not enter as terrorists."

Among the convicted are some number of people who came to the United States solely to be prosecuted.

"Those people simply aren’t immigrants and not a case of foreign terrorist entry," Sterman said. "They are brought here to face trial."

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"New report from DOJ & DHS shows that nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges are foreign-born."
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Tuesday, January 16, 2018
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Our Sources

U.S. Department of Justice, DOJ, DHS Report: Three Out of Four Individuals Convicted of International Terrorism and Terrorism-Related Offenses were Foreign-Born, Jan. 16, 2018

Twitter, @realdonaldtrump tweet, Jan. 16, 2018

Cato Institute, New Government Terrorism Report Provides Little Useful Information, Jan. 16, 2018

New America, Five Problems with the DHS/DOJ Report on Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, Jan. 16, 2018

Phone interview, David Sterman, a policy analyst in New America’s International Security program, Jan. 17, 2018

Email interview, Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, Jan. 16, 2018

PolitiFact, Trump misleads in claim about terrorism convictions since 9/11, March 2, 2017

PolitiFact, A look at the data on domestic terrorism and who’s behind it, Aug. 16, 2017

U.S. Government Accountability Office, Countering Violent Extremism, Actions Needed to Define Strategy and Assess Progress of Federal Efforts, April 2017, 9/11 Hijackers and Student Visas, Posted May 10, 2013 | Corrected Nov. 24, 2015

PolitiFact, Trump-O-Meter: Build a wall, and make Mexico pay for it, last updated Oct. 2, 2017

PolitiFact, Promises about Immigration on Trump-O-Meter

PolitiFact, Pick them from a bin? Donald Trump mischaracterizes diversity visa lottery, Dec. 20, 2017

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Donald Trump’s team misleads in tying international terrorism report to immigration