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Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson says the federal government has failed to secure the border and is releasing "hardened criminals" who are trying to invade the United States -- including from Iraq.
Criticism about the federal government releasing criminal illegal immigrants has been a familiar talking point during the GOP presidential primary following the murder this summer of a woman in San Francisco by a convicted felon who had previously been deported.
In a Sept. 25, 2015, speech at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit, Carson said that after a trip to the Mexican border, he found that "anybody could get through there." Then he made a claim about how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement releases illegal immigrants:
"And then, you know, when they capture people, ICE tells them to release them. And a lot of those people are not from Honduras and Mexico. They’re from Iraq and Somalia and Russia. And many of them are hardened criminals. And it seems like our federal government is actually fighting against the sheriffs and the people who are down there."
Two days later, Martha Raddatz of ABC News asked Carson if he had evidence that many were hardened criminals from those countries.
Carson, a GOP presidential candidate from West Palm Beach, Fla., replied: "Well, I talked to a number of the sheriffs on the borders and they've told me what kind of people are coming over. So I'm not sure that I would trust, quite frankly, any figures coming from the government, given the fact that they are the ones who are problematic."
We decided to check whether "a lot" of illegal immigrants who are released are from Iraq, Somalia and Russia. We couldn’t find comprehensive data on the citizenship of those who are released, but within the universe of those who are apprehended, only a tiny speck are from the countries cited by Carson.
Pinal County, Arizona
Carson campaign spokesman Doug Watts told us to call Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu in Arizona.
Carson met with Babeu when he visited the Arizona-Mexico border in August. Babeu blasted the federal government for releasing three criminal illegal immigrants this summer who were from Iraq, Russia and Sudan (not Somalia, as Carson said).
That included Dennis Valerievitch Tsoukanov of Russia, who set a police informant on fire; Musa Salah Abdelaziz Abdalla of Sudan, who had been convicted of assault; and Nasser Hanna Hermez of Iraq, who had been convicted of negligent homicide in the death of his infant daughter. In all three cases, after they had finished any term of incarceration, they were turned over to ICE, which then later released the men.
ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea told PolitiFact that "ICE under current law can no longer legally hold the three individuals."
Hermez is a legal permanent resident whose conviction does not make him eligible for deportation. The other two were foreign nationals who were released based on the Supreme Court decision in Zadvydas vs. Davis. That ruling prevents ICE from indefinitely holding individuals if it’s unlikely that ICE can actually deport them. These two men were ordered to report regularly to an ICE officer.
Tim Gaffney, director of administration for the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, told PolitiFact that law enforcement had seen an increase in a group referred to as "special interest aliens" who are from 35 countries with terrorist ties, including Iraq and Somalia.
Gaffney sent PolitiFact an excerpt from a report produced by the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center and other agencies which stated that during the first 10 months of fiscal year 2014, Border Patrol apprehended 402 "special interest aliens" with more than half of them from Bangladesh. The three countries cited by Carson, however, were not included in the excerpt. (Gaffney said he couldn’t provide the whole report because it is "law-enforcement sensitive.")
We also found news articles that cited examples of illegal immigrants with ties to terrorist groups who had been caught along the border. But none of the articles we saw backed up Carson’s argument that any significant number of illegal immigrants were from Iraq, Somalia and Russia.
The most we could find were articles like one from February, in which the Houston Chronicle posted a report from the Texas Department of Public Safety that stated that it had come in contact with special interest aliens including from Somalia with terrorist ties. There were additional news articles about two different Somali men with terrorist ties accused of smuggling Somalis into the United States.
But none of these reports suggest that there are "a lot" of people from those nations.
Illegal immigrants apprehended or removed
We also looked at broader data from federal officials to gauge the frequency of aliens from the countries Carson cited.
The most comprehensive data comes from the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. That data shows that for 2013 there were 662,483 aliens apprehended, including 169 from Iraq, 320 from Russia and 214 from Somalia. So, combined, the illegal immigrants from these countries add up to less than 1 percent of the total.
The largest groups of illegal immigrants were from Mexico (424,978), Guatemala (73,208) and Honduras (64,157).
We obtained more current data from the U.S. Border Patrol which showed the number of apprehensions by citizenship for 1.2 million deportable aliens between fiscal year 2013 and August 2015. Let’s look at the countries cited by Carson:
Total deportable aliens
Fiscal year 2013
Fiscal year 2014
Fiscal year 2015 through August
Percent of total
Source: U.S. Border Patrol
Still, Carson referred to the citizenship of illegal immigrants who were released by ICE, so we went in search of that data.
Illegal immigrants released
According to ICE data, the agency released 36,007 criminals in 2013 and 30,558 in 2014. The most common reason for the releases was due to a court order.
However, data on country of origin for illegal immigrants who were released was not immediately available from ICE.
We did find some efforts to fill in the blanks. Jeremy Redmon of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution documented cases in which the person’s country of origin refused to take them, which led to their release. The Journal-Constitution created a map to show 9,000 incidents of such illegal immigrants in cases between January 2012 and June 2014. He obtained the data through the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The countries that had the highest numbers of those released because their country wouldn’t take them were Cuba (2,348), Vietnam (779), Laos (465), Honduras (450), El Salvador (419), Mexico (346) and Guatemala (336).
By contrast, 47 detainees were released from Russia, 153 from Somalia and 136 from Iraq.
Of course, this is only one subset of illegal immigrants who were released; however, it is one more piece of evidence that shows certain Latin American countries have higher numbers of illegal immigrants caught here than most other nations.
Jessica M. Vaughan, an expert at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for low levels of immigration, said she has examined unpublished Border Patrol data on the citizenship of those apprehended and "noted that there are some individuals from Middle Eastern countries apprehended each year at the land border, although not a large number."
Carson says that when ICE releases illegal immigrants "a lot of those people are not from Honduras and Mexico. They’re from Iraq and Somalia and Russia."
Carson pointed to information from just one sheriff in Arizona, and even here he garbled the information -- the sheriff criticized the federal government for releasing three criminal illegal immigrants from Iraq, Russia and Sudan, not Somalia.
When we looked at the broad sweep of data, we saw nothing to indicate that the three countries Carson cited account for a significant share of illegal immigrants.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
Family Research Council Values Voter Summit, Ben Carson’s remarks, Sept. 25, 2015
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2013
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Removals, Fiscal year 2014
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Border security report, Fiscal year 2014
Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, Press release, Aug. 20, 2015
Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, Dr. Ben Carson briefing on border security and smuggling, August 2015
Excerpt of a Joint Intelligence Assessment produced by the Texas Joint Crime Information Center, the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center and the New Mexico All Source Intelligence Center, 2013-14
U.S. Department of Justice, Ahmed Dhakane sentencing memorandum, Dec. 1 2010
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Convicted but free to roam, May 24, 2015
Arizona Republic, "Carson calls for deploying more military at U.S.-Mexico border," Aug. 20, 2015
Fox News, "Arizona sheriff blasts feds for releasing violent criminals into communities," Aug. 20, 2015
CNS News, "DHS arrested 1191 illegals in 2014 from countries with terrorism problems," Jan. 26, 2015
Breitbart, "Government sources: rise in illegals from countries with ties to terrorism," June 30, 2014
Houston Chronicle, "Border surge harming crime fighting in other parts of Texas internal report finds," Feb. 24, 2015
PolitiFact, "Ben Carson claimed that program led to 97 percent illegal immigration drop has been ‘abolished,’" Sept. 27, 2015
PolitiFact Florida, "Jeb Bush says, wrongly, Obama administration is not deporting criminals," Aug. 26, 2015
PolitiFact, "Heritage analyst: Obama administration released 134,000 criminal aliens," July 16, 2015
Interview, Jennifer Elzea, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, Sept. 28, 2015
Interview, Dan Hetlage, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman, Sept. 29, 2015
Interview, Jessica Vaughan, Center for Immigration Studies Director of Policy Studies, Sept. 28, 2015
Interview, Tim Gaffney, Director of Administration, Pinal County Sheriff's Office, Sept. 28, 2015
Interview, Doug Watts, Ben Carson campaign spokesman, Sept. 28, 2015
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