SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. counterintelligence agencies need to shift resources to deal with an increasing number of people from countries other than Mexico and Central and South America illegally crossing the southern border, Rep. Chris Stewart said.
The Utah Republican returned from a trip to the San Diego area Tuesday saying the U.S. should be mindful of individuals from Sudan, Syria, North Africa and other "nations of concern to us" slipping into the country.
"They can get through about as easily as someone from Guatemala," he said.
Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he mostly traveled to the border for national security interests but also observed how barriers are working or not working to curb illegal immigration.
Most of those coming in from non-Latin countries have paid smugglers as much as $30,000 to get them across the border, he said. Some could pose terroristic threats to the U.S.
"I don’t want to be dramatic about this. I don’t want people to think I’m worried that they’re going to smuggle a nuclear device across the border," Stewart said. "But we do need to be aware that this is new, that it's not something we've seen before, and we probably have to adjust our resources to try to counter that."
Trump administration officials, including White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, have said U.S. Customs and Border Protection stopped nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists from crossing the border in fiscal year 2018.
But NBC News reported in January that border agents encountered only six immigrants at ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border in the first half of fiscal year 2018 whose names were on a federal government list of known or suspected terrorists, according to customs and border patrol data provided to Congress.
Of the 41 people overall on the Terrorist Screening Database encountered at the southern border from October 2017 to March 2018, 35 were U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents and six were classified as non-U.S. persons, according to the report.
The U.S. State Department's summary of global terrorism threats released last September concluded there was "no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States."
"The U.S. southern border remains vulnerable to potential terrorist transit, although terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States," the report said.
When border agents apprehend potential national security threats, the government needs to do a better job of tracing them back to their home countries, finding out how they arrived at the southern border and identifying any ties to terrorist organizations or groups, Stewart said.
"The FBI and other counterterrorism agencies or organizations are now focusing more on these individuals, whereas two years ago they weren't. They were focusing on individuals entering the country primarily through air travel," Stewart said.
The congressman said as he walked along the border, he watched people tear down fencing or use ladders to get over it. He also saw new barriers going up, which he said would "really make a difference" in keeping people from crossing illegally.
"It’s not perfect. It’s not impossible to penetrate. With some very expensive tools and some time they could cut their way through that, but it’s so much more effective than the old fencing," he said.
Stewart said the trip reinforced his belief that more money must be committed to building new barriers. He said he also came away knowing more that Congress, not a current or future president, needs to solve border issues.
"It doesn’t matter what customs and border patrol does. It doesn’t matter what fencing we give them," he said.
Stewart said he saw a young woman with a child go around the fence. Border agents could discourage her but not physically stop her from stepping into the U.S. At that point, he said agents had to honor her asylum claim.
"As long as that's true, we'll never fix the problem at the border," he said.
Congress, he said, needs to close the "loophole" on people claiming asylum and find a solution to the separation of families.