Analysis Immigration

Trump Administration Is Conflating Immigration With Terrorism at the Expense of Domestic Threats

Tina Vasquez

The administration is jeopardizing public safety and national security by overshadowing the very real threats on U.S. soil: mass shootings, and the continued rise of right-wing extremism and white supremacist movements.

One week after the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the first denaturalization under Operation Janus, a nearly decade-old counter-terrorism measure disbanded by President Obama in 2016, the DOJ and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released the severely flawedSection 11 Report.” The January report, like Trump’s campaign rhetoric, conflates terrorism with immigration.

The DOJ was quick to cite the largely debunked report when announcing a denaturalization case last week. The case involves a Sudanese immigrant, Mubarak Ahmed Hamed, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally transfer more than $1 million to Iraq in violation of federal sanctions and to obstructing administration of the laws governing tax-exempt charities. The department declared in its February 7 press release on Hamed’s case that the nation’s current immigration system “undermine[s] national security and public safety,” while providing no evidence to support the claim that this is a widespread issue.

For President Donald Trump’s administration, which typically discusses immigration in terms of the undesirability of immigrants, the Section 11 report was far from surprising. It was also a “report about nothing,” as Esther Yu Hsi Lee of ThinkProgress reported.

Similar criticisms about the lack of data and the conflation of immigration and terrorism were made by the Cato Institute, Talking Points Memo, and Politifact. Meanwhile, the Daily Beast reported that DHS was not even behind the report. Rather, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ office “took charge of the report’s assemblage of statistics,” and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was given the report to look over when “it was all but finalized.” Given the report’s focus on immigration and terrorism, DHS should have been deeply involved in both the formulation and writing.

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One could easily write off this latest move by the Trump administration as par for the anti-immigration course, but when the DOJ’s bogus report is coupled with Operation Janus, which advocates have called a “McCarthy-like witch hunt” and “overtly political,” a troubling picture begins to emerge.

Trump’s near-obsessive focus on the supposed criminality and violence of immigrants is coming at a cost, according to researchers, scholars, and even a former DHS analyst. It is jeopardizing public safety and national security by overshadowing the very real threats on U.S. soil: mass shootings, and the continued rise of right-wing extremism and white supremacist movements.

To be sure, the law isn’t always clear on labeling mass shootings and other similar incidents of violence, such as the Charleston church massacre in which white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine Black churchgoers, as domestic terrorism. In fact, government officials seem more likely to do so when Islamist extremist groups take credit for the violence. That’s exactly what people who spoke with Rewire are seeking clarity on. But whether or not people committing these heinous acts are charged with domestic terrorism under the law, mass shootings like the one this week in South Florida show that gun violence is a great threat to public safety—especially given that white supremacist groups have said the accused Florida shooter trained with them. Law enforcement officials are still investigating whether there is a connection between the person charged with the school shooting, Nikolas Cruz, and white supremacist groups.

According to Charles Kurzman, a professor at the University of North Carolina who tracks Muslim-American involvement in terrorism, “almost twice as many people were killed in the United States by mass shootings in 2017 as have been killed by Muslim-American extremists in the past 16 years.”

“Experts seem to understand that when it comes to threats to the United States, domestic terrorism and white supremacy are much greater risk to us right now, but that expertise isn’t making it into the White House,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project, which monitors the radical right. “Meanwhile, the administration is funneling a lot of time and resources into painting immigrants and Muslims as criminals and terrorists. Previous administrations also had blinders on when it came to acknowledging white supremacy as a source of terrorism, but what Trump is doing is another level of ignoring.”

This was echoed by by Daryl Johnson, who spent 15 years as a government counterterrorism analyst studying domestic terrorist groups, focusing on white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Six of those years were spent at DHS. In a phone interview with Rewire, Johnson explained that the Trump administration’s emphasis on Muslims does a disservice to the U.S. public, who are being misled about who poses an immediate threat to public safety and national security.

Johnson said a “good president” would understand that the conversation needs to be balanced, identifying threats through facts and research and using that information to funnel resources and create informed, intentional policies.

“Instead, we have fear mongering and the painting of certain communities as the bogeyman—and that’s dictating resources and polices,” Johnson said. “ISIS has been a real, legit threat, but we don’t live in the Middle East or Western Europe. Yes, we need to have our guard up, but we need to protect our citizens from all threats, and this administration has made it very clear through its rhetoric that they are not looking at all sides of the threat spectrum. For the Trump administration, there is one type of terrorism and it’s the Muslim variety, and they are hell bent on pushing that message, no matter the reality. Meanwhile, we’re seeing attacks on a near-monthly basis from men associated with hate groups and from right-wing extremists, but [Trump] will continue hyping one threat at the expense of the other. It’s a huge disservice to the public. Americans are searching for brown faces committing acts of terrorism; meanwhile, there’s a white guy who’s their neighbor or family member planning to burn down the local mosque or blow up the abortion clinic.”

Islamophobia: Another Tool in the Arsenal

As Rewire reported, Operation Janus appears to be targeting South Asian, Arab, and Muslim men from certain countries for denaturalization. In September, as part of the operation, the federal government filed three civil denaturalization complaints in federal courts in the Middle District of Florida, District of Connecticut, and District of New Jersey, against Parvez Manzoor Khan, Rashid Mahmood, and Baljinder Singh, respectively. In a press release at the time, the DOJ said that these three South Asian men “allegedly obtained their naturalized U.S. citizenship by fraud.”

On January 5, the DOJ announced that a New Jersey judge had “entered an order” canceling Singh’s naturalization certificate. These three men have been citizens for more than a decade and do not have criminal records; nothing about their cases suggests they nefariously withheld information in order to become naturalized. Rather, as one legal expert told Rewire last month, Singh’s actions “indicate [he] is someone who was afraid and wanted to come to the U.S. to escape persecution or be with his family.”

Advocacy organization Muslim Advocates filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to learn more about the circumstances that led the Trump administration to revive the counter-terrorism measure. Sirine Shebaya, a civil rights lawyer with Muslim Advocates, told Rewire in a phone interview that she fears Operation Janus will be used as an immigration enforcement tool targeting certain populations for denaturalization.

“We still don’t know very much about Operation Janus, but taken in the context of all this administration has done to target immigrants, Muslims, and Muslim immigrants, our concern is they are rolling out another way to target people based on religion or race for selective enforcement,” Shebaya said. “Whenever the U.S. has seen a denaturalization it’s usually a very extreme case, like someone who lied about their identity to cover up the fact they were a Nazi. In other words, instances where denaturalization made sense or was legitimate. The three men being targeted by Operation Janus indicate they’re using denaturalization much more broadly, against run-of-the-mill people.”

What is known is that Trump’s rhetoric has “amplified a wave of hate violence against South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities to heights not seen since the year after the attacks of September 11, 2001,” according to a new report from South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). Communities On Fire: Confronting Hate Violence and Xenophobic Political Rhetoric found that in the year after the presidential election, there were 302 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities—a more than 45 percent increase from SAALT’s previous analysis a year earlier.

“It is not surprising to me that the Trump administration fails to acknowledge or even recognize the increase in hate crimes various communities are experiencing. The DHS report seems to very transparently rely on false images and negative stereotypes of Muslims,” Shebaya said. “The Trump administration will use every tool in its arsenal to criminalize immigrant communities. Operation Janus and the propaganda in the report are radical and dangerous tools, but the administration has chosen to wield them.”

On Thursday, the DOJ announced its newest denaturalization complaint filed as part of Operation Janus, this time targeting a diversity visa recipient who was naturalized in 2004. The DOJ alleges Humayun Kabir Rahman (fka Md Humayun Kabir Talukder aka Ganu Miah aka Shafi Uddin) was ordered removed from the United States twice and used different names to eventually obtain citizenship. Based on this statement, it’s unclear whether he had a criminal record, and what his country of origin might be.

Johnson told Rewire that when Operation Janus is viewed alongside the DOJ’s debunked report, there is a label for what is being pushed: Islamophobia. The domestic terrorism expert said that the Trump administration is “grasping for anything” it can to bolster its claim that the primary threat to national security and public safety comes from Muslims.

“I’ve seen Trump tie terrorism to the southern border, and I can’t think of one case in which a terrorist came in from Mexico. Trump has tied refugees to terrorism, but I can only think of one case in which refugees in the U.S. were caught trying to plot something,” Johnson said. “The report, this Operation Janus, to me what this is really about is trying to bolster the president’s agenda and what he thinks terrorism looks like, but it does not speak to the reality of what terrorism is in America.”

The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

The Failure to See White Supremacy as a Source of Terrorism

Around the same time the Trump administration released its much-maligned report painting immigrants and Muslims as terrorists, a slate of reports also surfaced, highlighting well-documented threats to the U.S. public.

The SPLC’s new report, The Alt-Right Is Killing People, focuses on a population Trump has actually defended: young, white, angry males.

The SPLC found that in recent years, more than 100 people have been killed or injured by alleged perpetrators influenced by the so-called alt-right. This term is the sanitized name for the movement of young, white supremacists, which “continues to access the mainstream and reach young recruits,” according to the SPLC.

The U.S. audience for alt-right propaganda remains “phenomenally larger” than that available to ISIS-type recruiters, according to Moonshot CVE, a London-based start-up that works to counter online radicalization.

“This accessibility makes it easy for gradual indoctrination, particularly on social media platforms where tech companies long ignored the warning signs that their platforms were contributing to the radicalization of far-right extremists,” the SPLC reported. “The dark engine of the movement is reactionary white male resentment. Alt-right propaganda is designed to nourish the precise grievances recited by the disillusioned and indignant young men that dominate its ranks. It provides a coherent—but malicious—worldview. For a recruit, the alt-right helps explain why they don’t have the jobs or the sexual partners or the overall societal and cultural respect that they believe (and are told) to be rightfully theirs.”

In January, the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism and other forms of hate, released an analysis of 2017 terrorism-related incidents inside the United States, reporting that 59 percent of extremist-related deaths in 2017 were caused by white supremacists and far-right extremists.

One doesn’t need to look far to find recent examples of domestic terrorism. In October, a neo-Nazi who attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where James Alex Fields Jr. killed Heather Heyer in an act many in the media have called terrorism, was charged with terrorism for attempting to wreck an Amtrak train.

Taylor Michael Wilson, 26, was arrested in October with a fully loaded weapon after allegedly playing with the controls and applying the emergency brakes, “causing the train to stop with intent to harm those aboard,” CNN reported. Wilson was later released on partially secured bond, but ordered detained January 2 when investigators found “an arsenal of weapons, ammunition, and a handmade shield at his residence,” according to CNN. According to his roommate, Wilson also said that “he was interested in killing Black people.”

Trump’s White House has made no public acknowledgement of the Amtrak incident, and has failed to acknowledge white nationalists as contributors to domestic terrorism or extremist violence. Following Wednesday’s shooting, Trump didn’t acknowledge the pattern of school shootings and violence in his public statement, choosing instead to focus on the “difficult issue of mental health,” which only serves to perpetuate the “lone wolf” narrative and stigma around mental health. Meanwhile, when it comes to the purported violence of immigrants, Trump has waged “a racist war against” them, as Beirich said.

But ignoring the threat of homegrown violence and extremism is as Trumpian as pitting U.S. citizens against immigrants. Trump and his cabinet members are just doubling down.

According to Beirich, Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), a far-from-perfect government program that aims to deter groups or potential lone attackers through community partnerships, educational programs, and counter-messaging campaigns, didn’t characterize white supremacy groups as violent extremists until the end of the Obama administration. When Trump took office, there were plans to rename the program “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,” specifically excluding white supremacy groups, Reuters reported.

The name-change never took place, but Trump did ensure that organizations seeking CVE grants to fight right-wing extremism and white supremacy groups were denied funding. According to the Washington Post, during the last days of the Obama presidency, DHS awarded a $400,000 grant to Life After Hate, a nonprofit dedicated to de-radicalizing right-wing extremists. “Five months later, the organization learned that the Trump administration had rescinded its funding,” the Post reported. DHS also pulled funding from a project by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to counter propaganda from both militant Islamists and the far right.

“This was true under Bush, it was true under Obama, and it’s certainly true under Trump: For the most part, we don’t want to look at white supremacy as a cause of terrorism. We absolutely don’t want to look in our own backyard,” Beirich said. “What’s interesting is that ISIS could get crushed and the inspiration from those movements could disappear from the U.S. It’s a foreign import, but white supremacy was written into our Constitution.”

The director of the SPLC Intelligence Project also noted that the people Trump is often seeking to denaturalize and deport are not engaging in terrorism and the people who are engaging in terrorism in the United States largely cannot be deported because they are citizens.

“The car attack in Charlottesville might as well have been taken from an [Islamist terrorist] playbook. White supremacy is an issue indigenous to the U.S. and it is leading to acts of terrorism. If more people understood that, we might begin to address the problem in a real way,” Beirich said.

Educating the public on these issues would require hard data, but in the ultimate catch-22, the government won’t release data related to domestic terrorism, let alone acknowledge it. No one knows this better than Kurzman, the University of North Carolina professor who for years, has been trying to gather the docket numbers of cases related to domestic terrorism, but has effectively been stonewalled by the government.

On January 17, Kurzman filed a FOIA request seeking records of terrorism-related cases in the National Caseload Data maintained by the Executive Office for United States Attorneys. The professor highlighted the “urgent need to understand and analyze all terrorism-related cases in order to discern if or how the Department of Justice prosecutes instances of international terrorism differently from instances of domestic terrorism.” Kurzman requested an expedited response within 10 days. The DOJ, however, categorized his request as “complex,” which gives them 20 days to respond.

“When various administrations talk about immigration as the primary cause of violent extremism in the U.S., we don’t really know what the denominator for that is,” Kurzman told Rewire. “What we know is there is a database of all the prosecutions by U.S. attorneys from around the country of the last 20 years for domestic terrorism, but the cases are classified. Politically speaking, there has been a lot of difficulty with treating right-wing extremists in the same way we treat Muslim extremists, meaning there is reticence to focus government surveillance on right-wing groups the same way we do Muslim extremists. Apparently, to do so would be politically unpalatable.”

But failing to address right-wing extremism and white supremacy movements threatens public safety and national security, and this is something Johnson, the former DHS counter-terrorism analyst, has been saying for years, as he reminded the public after Heyer’s murder.

In 2009, Johnson released a report on the rise of “Rightwing Extremism,” which he only intended to be viewed by law enforcement. The report was leaked by conservative media, which pressured DHS to rescind the report. Johnson says he was effectively pushed out of DHS, along with his important contributions. All work related to right-wing extremism was halted, from what he can tell. Law enforcement training related to the subject appeared to stop, Johnson’s unit was disbanded, and, according to the former analyst, his team left DHS.

“Trump’s endorsement of the border wall, the travel ban, mass deportations of illegal immigrants—these ideas were touted on white supremacist message boards merely 10 years ago. Now they’re being put forth as official U.S. policy. Such controversial plans have placated white supremacists and anti-government extremists and will draw still more sympathetic individuals toward these extremist causes along with the sort of violent acts that too often follow, like Charlottesville,” wrote Johnson, who while at DHS created his own database on far-right extremist groups. The database enabled his analysts “to compile and sift reporting in the media and other law-enforcement agencies on radical and potentially violent groups,” Wired reported in 2012.

“By 2010, there were no intelligence analysts at DHS working domestic terrorism threats,” he wrote for the Washington Post. In the years since, “the body count from numerous acts of violent right-wing terrorism continued to rise steadily with very little media interest, political discussion, or concern from our national leaders.”

The primary criticism of Johnson’s report, which warned of a resurgence of right-wing extremist activity and associated violence in the United States as a result of the 2008 presidential election, the financial crisis, and the stock market crash, came from his assessment that returning military veterans may be targeted for recruitment by extremists, something that has proven to be true.

As a matter of fact, much of Johnson’s report has proven to be true, including the claim that “anti-government conspiracy theorists” will use “impending economic collapse to intensify fear and paranoia among like-minded individuals and to attract recruits during times of economic uncertainty.” The media endlessly detailed the “economic anxiety” of Trump’s white, working-class voters, who largely believed undocumented immigrants were taking their jobs. As it turned out, their votes were informed by racism, xenophobia, and nationalism.

Johnson told Rewire that to his knowledge, there is currently one person in DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis whose job it is to study right-wing extremism and domestic terrorism.

“It’s pretty pathetic,” Johnson said. “One person couldn’t effectively handle this. They can’t do their job. What they are is a figurehead; they’re an alibi. So if something happens, the U.S. can say, ‘Yes, we’ve had someone looking into this.’ It’s a farce.”

Beirich told Rewire that the chances of the United States reckoning with its white supremacy and racism under the Trump administration are slim. After all, this is a president who campaigned on white supremacy; now his administration is using the immigration system as its tool. Operation Janus and its denaturalizations are attempts to convince the U.S. public that immigration only leads to bad things—to crime, to terrorism, to the murder of citizens. Yet, they are just another way to expel immigrants of color from the country who politically represent a threat to the Republican Party. Experts on the issue are not convinced anything will change anytime soon.

“We have a very serious structural problem in the U.S., which is that the Republican Party has to use appeals to race to win elections. Republicans have become harder and harder on race and immigration,” Beirich said. “If Republicans ditched the racism, they would lose elections for a long time, but if they keep using racial appeals—using the approach that Trump has doubled down on—it becomes the party’s brand. There is nothing simple about the path moving forward. We have racist statements and actions coming from the White House and it’s really hurting people, but because it wins elections, I’m not sure if anything will change about it.”

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include the newest Operation Janus denaturalization case. A previous version of this piece included a now-debunked stat on the number of school shootings in 2018. We’ve also updated the piece to clarify that police are still investigating whether there is a connection between Nikolas Cruz, the person charged in a Florida school shooting, and white supremacist groups.

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