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Immigration agencies say anti-terrorism is top priority

By Michael J. Sniffen
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. immigration agencies say anti-terrorism is their primary mission, but they tried to deport only 12 people on terrorism-related charges from 2004 through 2006, according to a private research study released Sunday.

Anti-terrorism efforts

That group of 12 represents a tiny fraction of the 814,073 people the government tried to remove from the country during those three years. The study’s authors acknowledge the figure understates the anti-terrorism effort by the Homeland Security Department’s immigration agencies.

In addition, because no one knows how many terrorists are in the United States or tried to get in, there is no way to say whether the figure of 12 is too low, too high or about right.

“The right number is unknowable,” co-author David Burnham said in an interview. “But the budget and powers of this agency are influenced by all their talk and rhetoric about terrorism and criminals and if that isn’t what they are doing, it should be considered by Congress and the public.”

Enforcement totals

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the study failed to appreciate record-setting enforcement totals.

“They seem not to grasp that immigration laws are a powerful authority in preventing security risks from setting foot on our soil,” Knocke said. “The vast majority of immigration violations are either going to be criminals or economic migrants who arrive illegally, but we’re tough for that off-chance one presents a national security concern.”

Terrorists have been barred, Knocke said, and new tools to help are going into place. That includes getting data on travelers well before they arrive and improving security of travel documents.

A former New York Times reporter, Burnham is co-director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. The private research group at Syracuse University analyzed the work of two Homeland Security agencies — Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

TRAC analyzed records of the more than 200 immigration court judges employed by the Justice Department back through 1992 and the department’s records of criminal cases brought in U.S. district courts. The records were acquired under the Freedom of Information Act.

Deportation cases

TRAC also found that a separate, broader category of national security charges were brought to try to deport an additional 114 people during the three years. Criminal charges such as human trafficking, drug dealing and other traditional crimes were used against 106,878, or 13 percent of those the government tried to deport.

The overwhelming majority of deportation cases — 86.5 percent — were based on traditional immigration violations such as sneaking past border inspections, not having a valid visa or overstaying a student visa, TRAC said.

TRAC found that Homeland Security agencies were credited during the period with producing or assisting on only 31 of 620 criminal prosecutions in district courts against defendants whom prosecutors labeled international terrorists, domestic terrorists or terrorism financiers.

Last month, Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE, said: “Our mission remains clear — to protect the United States and uphold public safety by targeting the people, money and materials that support terrorists and criminal activities.”

The customs commissioner, Ralph Basham, said in the agency’s performance report for 2006:

“Our priority mission — and our greatest challenge — is to prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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