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PERSPECTIVE: ‘Extra-Continental’ Migrants Throughout Americas on Their Way Toward Southern Border

Late last month on Integration Bridge, which spans a Peru-Brazil river border crossing, a U.S.-bound migrant caravan of perhaps 400 repeatedly clashed with militarized border police determined to enforce a coronavirus closure.

Both sides settled into a tense multi-day standoff during which the migrants negotiated safe passage aboard trucks.

But many of these immigrants were not the Mexicans and Central Americans familiar to Americans. These were from African nations such as the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Senegal as well as Haiti and nations such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh that are of terrorism concern in the United States.

U.S. homeland security professionals sometimes refer to these as “extra-continentals” or “special interest aliens” because they have traveled vast distances and are regarded as posing some national security risk. Right now, an unknown number of extra-continental migrants that may be in the thousands – perhaps following in the earlier path of 11 Iranians caught at the Arizona border Feb. 2 – are on the march throughout the Americas in caravans and in smaller groups. People like the 187 from Somalia, 182 from Syria, and 63 from Tunisia caught by Honduran authorities in December are feeling especially motivated by word that the U.S. border is open under newly seated President Joe Biden.

Chuck Holton, a Panama-based American journalist reporting for the Christian Broadcasting Network, spoke by phone on Thursday with Homeland Security Today just moments before boarding a migrant boat in the northeast Colombia town of Necocli. He said he felt surprised to find himself among a “massive crowd of hundreds” waiting to board. With the ambient sounds of children and talking people in the background, Holton told HST many hailed from African nations like Burkina Faso, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo but many more from Haiti, Cuba, one from Turkey and four from Nepal. All were heading to a beach landing up the Colombian coast to a trailhead leading over the “Darien Gap,” an arduous jungle foot route leading to the Panama border.

Holton said many of the Haitians and Cubans had already been living and working for years in countries like Brazil and Ecuador but decided to uproot their lives again because family and friends in the United States urged them to come right away, saying President Joe Biden would welcome them in and prevent their deportations.

“They’re telling me, ‘Biden likes us. He likes immigrants. Biden likes immigrants,’” Holton said of his interviews with more than a dozen of the migrants. “The Africans literally just left a week ago. Some of them said, ‘we know it’ll be easier now.’”

Indeed, newly confirmed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently reinforced that message to migrants seeking U.S. asylum that they would not be turned away at the border.

“We are not saying, ‘don’t come,’” Mayorkas said at a March 1 White House press briefing. “We are saying ‘don’t come now,’ because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them – as quickly as possible.”

The Higher National Security Risk

What differentiates some migrants from Mexicans and Central Americans – especially when they hail from a shifting 35-55 U.S. list of designated nations of national security interest like Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan – is that American officials see a heightened national security risk in that they hail from areas where terrorist organizations actively recruit and operate. I have argued that the same concern applies to African nations or origin, where atrocity-committing tribal militias and government forces are active and vetting is problematic.

As described at length in my book, America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration, homeland security professionals strive to determine whether the incoming from designated countries of terrorism concern are the persecutors or the persecuted, terrorists or their victims, have blood on their hands or are the bloodied. Often, though, such migrants arrive without even identification from countries that hold no records or have had no viable governments for decades.

“This is not merely an issue of Spanish-speaking Mexicans and Central Americans illegally entering the U.S. but clearly is a much greater global threat when we understand where the flow emanates from and the direct threat that poses to our national security,” said James G. Conway, a former FBI attaché in Mexico City who launched programs after 9/11 to discern jihadists among migrants moving through Mexico. “Those who come from countries that have a significant presence of terrorist groups must be cleared through background checks and vetted. And yes, there are still international terrorists who want to bring harm to America and its people.”

A Buildup Now Flowing

Extra-continental migrants from 150 countries typically reach the border in any given year. But during the pandemic, unknown thousands built up behind Latin America COVID containment border closures in various countries while push-back policies of Donald Trump also dissuaded expensive border-crossing attempts.

“This is like a pressure cooker,” Walter Cotte, regional director of the Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent for the Americas and Caribbean, told French media in August about bursting-at-seams Panamanian camps.

But pressure to advance began to escalate even before Biden won  election promising less-obstructed border entries, a path to legalization, and a deportation moratorium, manifesting as riots in Panama, Guyana, Suriname and Ecuador. Frustration, for instance, led to unrest in the government camp for 200 people in the small Panamanian village of La Penita, where up to 2,000 migrants stuck there set fire to facilities and damaged vehicles. In Necocli, migrants from Somalia, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and DRC among greater numbers of Haitians tried unsuccessfully to seize a boat off shore.

Caravans began to form all over the Americas after the election, from Guyana to Paraguay to Chile, organized on social media networks.

Then, Panama reopened its borders Jan. 30 to relieve some of the pressure. Among the migrants backed up in Colombia was Yemenite Mohammed Al-Gaadi, a war refugee who had found safe haven living and working in Ecuador for three years as a street vendor. Once Panama opened, he took his opportunity to reach the United States, he told the newspaper Infobae in Colombia.

The march is on in remote locations probably unfamiliar to most Americans.

A Feb. 18 Associated Press dispatch from Mexico reported alarming increases in migrant numbers trekking from Panama in “small, discreet groups.” The story quoted a priest in Tabasco state who runs a local migrant shelter as saying 1,500 migrants have flowed through in just the first six weeks of 2021, compared to 3,000 during all of 2020.

“We have a tremendous flow and there isn’t capacity,” Gabriel Romero told the AP. “The situation could get out of control. We need a dialogue with all of the authorities before this becomes chaos.”

The story reported that “even Africans and Asians” were moving in this traffic.

Anticipating a rush from their south, Central American governments recently began coordinating a plan to counter “a possible wave of migration of Haitians, Cubans, Asians, and Africans who seek to reach the United States irregularly,” Noticias por El Mundo reports.

The main reason for all of this, now, according to AP?

“Some migrants have expressed hope of a friendlier reception from the new U.S. administration, or started moving when some borders were reopened.”

The Security Vetting Challenge

As described in America’s Covert Border War, one main prong of America’s effort flags border-crossing migrants from countries of terrorism concern for intensive interviews and examination while they are in U.S. detention to learn true hearts, minds and intent. Another is to hunt down their smugglers in Latin America who bridge the Atlantic Ocean.

But even in normal times, the covert border war is imperfect at ferreting out good liars or those not in terrorism databases. Mass migration crises that collapse normal management processes exacerbate an already difficult vetting challenge. The covert border war vetting enterprises can get kicked offline entirely while migrants flow into the nation’s interior.

Though its caveat went little noticed, an October Department of Homeland Security Threat Assessment warned that terrorist organizations could take advantage of a migrant surge crisis to “facilitate the movement of affiliated persons toward the United States.”

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email editor@hstoday.us. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Todd Bensman
Todd Bensman is the Center for Immigration Studies' Texas-based Senior National Security Fellow. He is the author of the forthcoming book "America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration," due in February 2021 from Bombardier Books. Prior to joining CIS in August 2018, Bensman led homeland security intelligence efforts for nine years in the public sector. Bensman’s body of work with policy and intelligence operations is founded on more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist covering national security topics, with particular focus on the Texas border. In 2009, Bensman transitioned from journalism to join the Texas Department of Public Safety's Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, where he managed teams of intelligence analysts that worked in concert with federal homeland security and U.S. Intelligence Community agencies to identify and mitigate terrorism threats. From the State of Texas fusion center for nine years, he designed and directed collection operations that fed into the Intelligence Community and prompted or advanced federal counterterrorism investigations. Among his original programs was a specialized effort to help federal partners disrupt human smuggling networks transporting migrants to the U.S. land border from countries where Islamist terrorist organizations are active. Prior to his government experience, Bensman worked on staff for The Dallas Morning News, CBS, and Hearst Newspapers, covering the FBI, federal law enforcement and serving on investigative teams.

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