The Border Patrol annually rounds up a smattering of illegal entrants from nearly every country in the world, including Middle Eastern countries considered hotbeds of terrorist activity. Indeed, the Internet buzzes with reports of Korans and prayer rugs found along the U.S.-Mexican border.
But so far, no one in the U.S. government has tied any terrorist act to anyone who crossed the border illegally. The 9/11 hijackers all entered the United States on temporary visas, arriving through regular ports of entry. Other foreign terrorists or would-be terrorists apprehended in the United States have followed similar routes into the country.
Many immigration and security experts believe the Southwestern border remains an unattractive option for terrorists plotting their path into the United States. "We have lots of data on terrorist travel. They like to travel the way everybody else travels. They like predictability. They like to know what they're going to face," says James Jay Carafano, a senior defense and counterterrorism analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "That's not to say a terrorist can't try to use a smuggler to get across the border, but they're far more likely to use the legal ports of entry."
Carafano believes a border fence makes sense for immigration control in limited areas but that the cost and effort necessary to build nearly 700 miles of fence is diverting resources that could be better used to improve infrastructure and screening procedures at ports of entry. "Fixating myopically on the wall is just bad public policy," he says. "Looking for terrorists by standing watch on the border is stupid. It's looking for a needle in a haystack."
But Michael Cutler, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service special agent and now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, thinks the danger of terrorists sneaking across the U.S.-Mexican border shouldn't be discounted. "If you're doing risk analysis, any place where somebody could reasonably expect to enter the United States is a place where you want to shore up security," he says. "And when you look at how many people cross that border every week, and the evidence of Islamists they've found there, then I think you've got to consider it a threat."
Cutler is concerned that Hezbollah and other terrorist groups may have a presence in the "tri-border region" in South America — the area where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet, which includes an immigrant population from the Middle East. He believes the region could provide a Latin American base for Islamic terrorists who could use the Southwestern border to enter the United States. However, the credibility of such a threat is debated in security circles.
Rey Koslowski, director of the Research Program on Border Control and Homeland Security at the University at Albany, in New York, says U.S. efforts to tighten security at ports of entry — particularly a new system intended to make it more difficult for those on the government's terrorist "watch list" to board airplanes bound for the United States — could make the Southwestern border more attractive to "established terrorists." If they did end up contemplating that route, then the border fence might help deter them, Koslowski adds, since it would make their capture — and identification — more likely.
Still, he believes al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations would probably choose a different strategy: sending individuals who don't have a criminal record and thus would be less likely to generate a "watch list" hit. "Such individuals would be in a better position to enter through ports of entry, at lower levels of risk," Koslowski says.
But Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which favors less immigration — legal or illegal — says the "general sense of chaos" along the U.S.-Mexican border created by the large number of illegal migrants makes it an attractive target for terrorists.
"The fact that it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it isn't going to happen," he says. "The presumption ought to be that if we leave any areas unguarded, our enemies will take advantage of them."