U.S. homeland security officials are pushing back against claims that known and suspected terrorists are trying to sneak into the country from Mexico, calling such incidents "very uncommon."
Republican lawmakers have been sounding alarms about what they say is a growing immigration crisis along the U.S southern border. And in an interview Monday with Fox News, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy alleged terrorists were using the situation to infiltrate the country.
"It's not just people from Mexico or Honduras or El Salvador," McCarthy said. "They're now finding people from Yemen, Iran, Turkey – people on the terrorist watch list."
But in a statement late Tuesday to VOA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection rejected the notion of a major security breach.
"Encounters of known and suspected terrorists at our borders are very uncommon," a CBP spokesperson said. "Our border security efforts are layered and include multiple levels of rigorous screening that allow us to detect and prevent people who pose national security or public safety risks from entering the United States."
CBP and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, did not provide any data on the number of suspected terrorists who have been caught trying to enter the U.S. at the border.
The U.S.-based news site Axios, citing a congressional aide briefed on correspondence from CBP, reported late Tuesday that, since October 2020, four people on the FBI’s terror watchlist were caught trying to enter the U.S. from the southern border — including three people from Yemen and one from Serbia.
"I am concerned if one tries to come," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday.
"That's not a new phenomenon," he added. "Individuals who match that profile have tried to cross the border, the land border, [and] have tried to travel by air into the United States, not only this year, but last year.”
Other officials, though, have warned that the situation bears watching.
"I have seen intelligence that gives me reason to be concerned about what comes across the border," General Glen VanHerck, the commander of U.S. Northern Command, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday in response to a question from VOA.
"We need to know exactly who is coming across that border and what their intent is," he said. "How we get there is a policy decision but it has homeland, defense and national security implications."
This is not the first time lawmakers or officials have raised concerns about terrorists trying to get into the United States by posing as migrants or refugees.
In January 2019, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen issued a series of tweets, alleging "the number of terror-watchlisted (people) encountered at our Southern Border has increased over the last two years," and that "Thousands of terror-watchlisted individuals transit our hemisphere each year."
But U.S. counterterrorism officials took issue with the DHS assessment, telling VOA at the time, "We do not see any evidence that ISIS or other Sunni terrorist groups are trying to infiltrate the southern U.S. border."
More recently, the State Department's 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism, released in June 2020, also rejected the idea that terrorists are trying to get into the U.S. via Mexico.
"There was no credible evidence indicating international terrorist groups established bases in Mexico, worked directly with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States," the report found.
A September 2020 whistleblower complaint, released by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, alleged DHS officials, under then-President Donald Trump, made false statements to Congress about the terror threat along the southern border.
The complaint charged the false claims were part of an effort to "politicize, manipulate and censor intelligence in order to benefit President Trump."