PINAL COUNTY, AZ - On a single day in April, in a special cell block deep inside the Pinal County Jail, nearly 400 inmates sat awaiting trial or extradition after being detained trying to cross the Arizona border from Mexico.
Only about half of them were actually from Mexico.
The cell block, owned by Pinal County, but contracted with the Department of Homeland Security, is a way station in the immigration process, where inmates are held after they are detained by the Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But it’s where the inmates are from that causes concern for some critics and lawmakers.
On that one day in April, according to records obtained by ABC 15, Homeland Security officials were holding inmates from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Sudan.
“They’re coming from all over,” Arizona Senator Jon Kyl said. “And one wonders whether some of them are coming in here to commit acts of terror.”
Kyl has been tracking the problem since 2002, not long after the September 11 attacks. Since that time, according to an investigation by the House Committee on Homeland Security, intelligence officials have determined members of the terror group Hezbollah have already infiltrated the U.S. by crossing at the southern border.
ICE officials told congressional investigators, undocumented immigrants were smuggled from the Middle East to staging areas in Central and South America, before being smuggled into the U.S.
The report says officials are also concerned about Venezuela emerging as a terrorist “hub,” with the government there issuing travel documents that can be used to obtain a U.S. visa.
Border patrol agents have also recovered military-style patches on clothing near the border. One patch contains the word “martyr” in Arabic. Another depicts a plane appearing to fly into sky scrapers.
In 2009, according to Homeland Security documents obtained by ABC 15, ICE officials detained 45,279 undocumented immigrants classified as OTM. While the vast majority were from other Central American countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, officials also arrested 10 undocumented immigrants from Iran, 10 from Iraq, six from Lebanon and 19 from Pakistan.
Through May of this year, officials had detained more than 25,000 OTM border crossers.
Officials interviewed for this story expressed frustration, because U.S. intelligence officials have known for the better part of a decade about terror groups’ willingness to smuggle people across the southern border, yet little has been done to substantially increase border security.
Officials also note the nightmarish scenario involved with returning detainees to their home countries. The Mexican government won’t accept a border crosser if they aren’t from Mexico, and many countries lack any diplomatic mechanism for repatriating a detainee.
“There’s a procedure which takes place, where, in effect, if we can’t send them back, they’re let go,” Senator Kyl said. “Obviously that creates an illegal immigration problem, but it could… create a problem of terrorism as well.”
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