Last week Casa Grande Border Patrol Agent James Gonzalez told Staff Writer Kevin Reagan on PinalCentral’s podcast “Off the Record” that he had seen an uptick in the apprehension of illegal migrants locally.

Apprehensions had been decreasing since 2000 until this year. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, each month of the current fiscal year has had higher apprehensions than in fiscal year 2018. Officials this week said that is the trend all along the border.

Agents stationed in Casa Grande are responsible for patrolling large stretches of desert on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

But it wasn’t what Gonzalez and other officials said regarding the trend that caught my attention. It is what they didn’t say.

They didn’t say anything about Middle Eastern terrorists being caught among the hordes of migrants crossing the border.

Last year a woman who said she and her husband had taught on the Tohono O’odham Nation wanted to know why we haven’t reported on the number of Arabic-speaking people being picked up on the reservation. She said Border Patrol agents had found prayer rugs and other items indicating there was a significant number of “sleeper” terrorists blending in with the Hispanic migrants coming across the border.

I asked her if she would speak on the record about her experience, but she declined.

I later received a phone call from another woman who made the same claims, but she didn’t say she had any first-hand knowledge. It was just what she had heard.

Recently we received a letter making the same allegations.

“With all the talk about Isis and Hizb’allah lone sleepers coming across the border illegally, have you sent a journalist to the detention centers/camps to find out how many Arabic speakers they are holding?” the letter stated. “Are they bilingual? If not, do they employ translators?? From where? Are they held with Latinos or separately?”

The Border Patrol regularly issues press releases on significant news about apprehensions along the border. In the four years I have worked for Casa Grande Valley Newspapers Inc., I can’t recall one press release that mentioned a suspected terrorist or any Middle Eastern reference. If there had been, I guarantee it would have been front page news. There has been plenty of news reported about suspected gang members being apprehended, but no terrorists or agents.

On a number of occasions last fall, President Donald Trump and some administration officials suggested that migrants from Middle Eastern countries might have traveled among the thousands of Hondurans in a U.S.-bound column. The administration did not provide any information to support the assertions.

According to the independent Center for Immigration Studies 2018 report, only 15 migrants with “credibly suspected or confirmed terrorism ties” have been apprehended on the southern border since 2001.

For perspective, in 2001, 1.3 million illegal migrants were apprehended along the southern border, according to Customs and Border Protection. That figure was 310,531 in 2017, reflecting the downward trend before it reversed this year. But that means since 2001, more than 12 million people have been apprehended at the border, with only 15 of those with suspected terrorism ties. Of the 15, only five were prosecuted, the report said.

The origins of the rumor that sleeper agents of the Islamic State were slipping through our southern borders can be traced to 2014 when U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California made the claim in an interview with Fox News.

“ISIS is coming across the southern border. They aren’t flying B1 bombers bombing American cities, but they are going to be bombing American cities coming across from Mexico,” he said.

He cited Border Patrol agents as the source of his information.

That year Judicial Watch, an online blog known for trying to get President Obama deported, claimed an “imminent attack” of terrorists infiltrating our southern border was coming.

Snopes.com reported that the suggestion that individuals who have ties to ISIS have been apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border is “categorically false, and not supported by any credible intelligence or the facts on the ground. DHS continues to have no credible intelligence to suggest terrorist organizations are actively plotting to cross the Southwest border.”

The debate over whether or not we need a wall along the border should be reserved for the migrant trend we know exists — that being the sheer number of people entering the U.S. illegally. Trying to tie a terrorism threat to this discussion has no basis in fact and does nothing but cloud the issue. It also discredits those trying to make that argument.

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You can reach Andy Howell at ahowell@pinalcentral.com.

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