WASHINGTON -- US immigration agencies say antiterrorism 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 yesterday.
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 antiterrorism effort by the Homeland Security Department's immigration agencies.
In addition, because no one knows how many terrorists are in the nation or tried to get in, there is no way to say if the figure of 12 is too low, too high, or about right.
"The right number is unknowable," co author David Burnham said. "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."
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," he said.
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.
Burnham is co director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. The private research group at Syracuse University analyzed the work of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection.
The clearinghouse 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 US district courts. The records were acquired under the Freedom of Information Act.
The clearinghouse also found that a broader category of national security charges was brought to try to deport an additional 114 people during the three years. C harges such as human trafficking, drug dealing, and other 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 violations such as sneaking past border inspections, not having a valid visa, or overstaying a student visa, the clearinghouse said.