Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday became the latest Trump administration official to cite a suspect statistic to support the Trump administration’s lie that there are “unknown Middle Easterners” currently traveling with a caravan of migrants and asylum-seekers through Mexico toward the U.S. border.
A Pence spokesperson later amended his incorrect statement, but the new version still doesn’t support Trump’s conspiratorial claim. Pence cited the same suspect stat again later Tuesday, this time in the Oval Office, equating the “Middle Easterners” dogwhistle with “suspected terrorists.”
Asked in an interview Tuesday if he had any proof for Trump’s claim — no one has presented any, and the President himself said Tuesday that there is “no proof of anything” — Pence said “it’s inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent in a crowd of more than 7,000 people advancing toward our border.”
He cited the following statistic to support that claim:
“In the last fiscal year, we apprehended more than 10 terrorists or suspected terrorists per day at our southern border, from countries that are referred to in the lexicon as ‘other than Mexico.’ That means, ‘from the Middle East region.’”
When the Washington Post fact-checked the claim, Alyssa Farah, a spokesperson for Pence, amended it to include all ports of entry, not just the southern border:
“In 2017 alone the U.S. apprehended on average between 10 suspected terrorists a day attempting to enter the country illegally.”
Later on Tuesday, standing next to the President in the Oval Office, Pence referred to the same statistic, this time explicitly equating terrorists and Middle Easterners:
“The United States of American intervenes and prevents 10 terrorists, or suspected terrorists, from coming into our country every day. So it is inconceivable that there would not be individuals from the Middle East as a part of this growing caravan.”
That sounded similar to a statistic cited by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday, also to support Trump’s lie:
“We have 10 individuals, suspected or known terrorists, that try to enter our country illegally every day.”
A Department of Homeland Security Official told TPM Tuesday, repeating a statement made to other news organizations:
“CBP prevented 10 known or suspected terrorists from traveling to or entering the United States every day in fiscal year 2017.”
The Post pointed out that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in June:
“In fact, on average, my department now blocks 10 known or suspected terrorists a day from traveling to or attempting to enter the United States.”
None of these recent statements support Trump’s repeated claim about “unknown Middle Easterners,” and the term itself seems to be meant to make Republican voters fearful and motivated to vote in the 2018 midterm elections.
That said, the statements, while similar, are not the same: There’s a difference between “apprehended,” “try to enter,” “prevented” and “blocks,” for example, and it’s not clear what “suspected terrorists” means; the Trump administration has a record of speaking dishonestly about the threat of terrorism, and Trump has frequently distorted statistics to dehumanize immigrants.
The Post pointed out one possible source of the statistic from when Pence falsely claimed in February that, “along the southern border,” authorities had apprehended “seven individuals a day who are either known or suspected terrorists.” A joint Justice Department/DHS study published around that time that asserts:
In 2017 alone DHS had 2,554 encounters with individuals on the terrorist watch list (also known as the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database) traveling to the United States.
That, the Post noted, averages seven per day — but in total, not exclusively on the southern border. Eighty-five percent of the of the 2,554 people mentioned in that report, Politifact noted, came by air. Also, the terrorist watch list has nothing to do specifically with the Middle East. It’s not hard to end up on it; there are thousands of Americans on it.
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to TPM’s requests to clear up the statistic and its source, nor did Sarah Sanders.
Alyssa Farah, asked for the source of her statement to the Post (that amended Pence’s) wrote in an email: “The Department of Homeland Security – specifically CBP.” She cc’ed a DHS official when pressed for specifics; the official then repeated the statement given to other outlets Monday. It doesn’t support Trump’s claim.
When asked for a report or other documents that supported the statement, the official responded “I believe this is from the report,” without specifying which report he meant.
Asked for details again, the official said:
“The data concerns individuals attempting to travel to the United States by air, sea, or land. On average last year, DHS prevented 10 individuals tied to terror—known or suspect terrorists—each day from traveling or attempting to travel to the United States. These are individuals that hit against U.S. terror watchlists.”
Asked again if there was any specific report or documents for TPM readers to check his statements against, the official said: “There is no report to link to,” just “DHS data.”