U.S. government policy requires that young Middle Eastern men who are caught crossing illegally into the United States from Mexico be treated the same as illegal aliens from elsewhere in the world–meaning that if they don’t have criminal records, don’t appear on government watch lists and are not deemed to be suspicious by the federal law enforcement officers who interview them, they most likely will be released into the U.S. population.
All 19 of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were young men from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. None of them had criminal records, not all were on watch lists, and few apparently raised significant suspicions among American border or visa authorities.
“The law does not differentiate based on nationality. So enforcement does not differ based on nationality,” says Reed Little, Detention and Enforcement Officer for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He added that ICE officials must justify their actions before immigration judges.
Asked if a 25-year-old man from Saudi Arabia would be treated at all differently from other illegal aliens coming across the Mexican border, ICE spokesman Manny Van Pelt said, “No.”
Van Pelt said the government’s general practice is to release apprehended aliens into the United States without requiring bond pending their deportation hearing, unless they have criminal records, are flagged in a government database as a potential threat, or their interviews with agents reveal a potential threat. “It’s just a matter of interviewing them and running their names through the database. . . ,” he said. “If everything is clean, he will be issued a Notice to Appear.” That requires the illegal alien to appear in court at a later date, he said. Illegal aliens deemed to be a threat or who have criminal records are detained until their hearings.
Van Pelt and Little said there is no justification for singling out people from the Middle East and cited Richard Reid, an Englishman who tried to detonate his shoe on an airliner, as an example of a terrorist threat from another part of the world. “There have been people suspected and accused of being Irish terrorists,” Van Pelt noted. Also, said Little, immigration agents have to justify their actions with evidence before judges. “We have to be able to inform the immigration judge why we are holding a person,” he said. “‘He’s a young man from a Middle Eastern country’ doesn’t sound very good.”
In just the McAllen, Tex., sector of the Southern border, 19,460 nationals other than Mexicans (OTMs) were apprehended between Oct. 1, 2003, and July 28, 2004, according to a local Border Patrol spokesman. One of those was Farida Ahmed, a Muslim woman with a South African passport on her way to New York. She was detained at McAllen International Airport by astute Border Patrol agents on July 19. She is charged with entering the country illegally, possessing an altered passport, and lying to investigators.
ICE does not keep central statistics on OTMs apprehended crossing the Southern border. Eddie Flores, spokesman for the McAllen sector of the Border Patrol, said that in his sector, foreigners of numerous nationalities have been caught sneaking into the country from Mexico. After Mexicans, he said, Hondurans and El Salvadorans are the most numerous. But he could not provide a precise breakdown, he said, because he wasn’t supposed to give one out and also because he didn’t have one anyway. “Washington told me to hold that back, but I don’t have a breakdown,” he said.
Van Pelt said he could not provide statistics for how many OTMs have come across the entire length of the Southern border this fiscal year or what has happened to them since they were apprehended. “We don’t have a national database that tracks that,” he said. “We are going to have to ask each sector for their figures.” He said that it would take time for such statistics to be gathered.
A group of 12 congressmen led by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R.-Colo.), chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on August 3 asking for statistics on OTMs apprehended on the Southern border and a breakdown of their nationalities. Tancredo spokesman Carlos Espinosa said, “The letter has been assigned to Border and Transportation Security, and [they] said they have set an August 18 deadline to respond to us.”
Flores said that in his sector nationals from unusual countries such as South Africa get extra attention from the Border Patrol when they are apprehended. “We don’t commonly encounter people from South Africa in the McAllen sector,” he said. “Since 9/11, we scrutinize such people.” The McAllen sector includes Brownsville, Harlingen, and Corpus Christi.