Issues

DHS Has No Idea How Many ‘Security Risks’ Slipped Past Border

A break in the border fence at the United States-Mexico border is seen outside of Brownsville, Texas
A break in the border fence at the United States-Mexico border is seen outside of Brownsville, Texas / Reuters

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials were stumped when asked by a congressional subcommittee to provide data on high-level threats that have slipped through the U.S. border.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas) asked DHS officials whether they had a percentage or exact figures on how many people labeled as potential risks have slipped through visa screenings.

The officials could not supply an accurate number to the subcommittee.

"I’m talking about people that are security risks. Surely you know that number," Smith said. "I mean, we are talking about the safety of the American people here."

The witnesses offered to submit data to the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security on how they are deporting high-risk targets.

The exchange came as DHS announced that it will ramp up its overseas screening operations as a method of heading off attacks at home on Tuesday. The agency said it will add nine new pre-screening stations in 10 different countries. The officials said the agency has cargo screening stations in 60 ports in 32 countries.

These programs have increased security in American airports and shipping ports; now 36 percent of all travelers to the United States are prescreened, and 80 percent of maritime-cargo traffic is examined before entering port.

"In a global world, the idea of having borders on a map is a thing of the past," Alan D. Bersin, the assistant secretary and chief diplomatic officer for DHS’ office of policy, said in his opening statement. "We don’t see the traditional borders: air, land, and sea, as the first signs of entry, but the last."

The hearing came on the same day that Jeh Johnson, the current head of DHS, shook up the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) following reports that the agency failed to detect explosives in 95 percent of cases.

Crucial to DHS’ efforts to expand its activities beyond traditional borders are various overseas programs, including pre-clearance initiatives, immigration assistance programs, and transnational criminal investigative units (TCIUs).

Lev Kubiak, another DHS official,highlighted the overseas operations as successes before the committee.

"TCIUs are investigative units comprised of HSI special agents working alongside foreign law enforcement to investigate common threats. Foreign personnel assigned to our TCIUs undergo a strict vetting process, including a polygraph examination," Kubiak said. "Let me highlight two recent successes that underscore the value our TCIUs. Last year, HSI special agents and their partners in the Colombian TCIU developed criminal intelligence that resulted in the seizure of 6,910 kilograms of cocaine at the port of Cartagena."

Rep. Filemon Vela (D., Texas) also asked the DHS officials about the current state of relations with Mexico, citing specific examples of drug related violence from his home state.

"Just this past weekend, I had neighbors come up to me talking about how there were gun battles five miles from their house," Vela said. "I was wondering if you could give us an idea, on the diplomatic front, what is going on with Mexico City to address this situation?"

Bersin told the committee that the number of immigrants trying to cross the border and the amount of drug violence on the U.S. side of the border have decreased significantly.

"The level of relations with Mexico is unprecedented," Bersin responded. "The way we engage with Mexico today is nothing like it was five or 10 years ago. It’s not easy to say when you are in the middle of the storm that we will survive this storm, but we have seen the violence eventually decrease in other areas along the border."