A Department of Homeland Security draft report from late January called on authorities to continuously vet Sunni Muslim immigrants deemed to have “at-risk” demographic profiles.
The draft report, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy, looks at 25 terrorist attacks in the United States between October 2001 and December 2017, concluding there would be “great value for the United States Government in dedicating resources to continuously evaluate persons of interest” and suggesting that immigrants to the United States be tracked on a “long-term basis.”
If the report’s recommendations were implemented, it would represent a vast expansion of the Trump administration’s policies aimed at many Muslim immigrants, extending vetting from those trying to enter the United States to those already legally in the country, including permanent residents.
The report was produced at the request of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Kevin McAleenan on Jan. 22, according to internal DHS correspondence reviewed by FP. The purpose of the report, the document says, is to “inform United States foreign visitor screening, immigrant vetting and on-going evaluations of United States-based individuals who might have a higher risk of becoming radicalized and conducting a violent attack.”
In the report, CBP identifies a broad swath of Sunni Muslim residents as being potentially “vulnerable to terrorist narratives,” based on a set of risk indicators, such as being young, male, and having national origins in “the Middle East, South Asia or Africa.”
FP, which reviewed the original draft document and related correspondence, is publishing a reproduced version of the text of the report.
In response to queries from FP, a CBP spokesperson called the report a “first draft” that has already been changed and is still undergoing revisions. “[I]t is extremely important to highlight an important aspect – the document that was improperly provided to you is not a final CBP intelligence assessment, and therefore does not reflect CBP’s policy on this matter,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “More specifically, the initial draft assessment in your possession not only is still undergoing internal CBP review, but, at the time of its improper disclosure, did not reflect a large number of substantive comments and revisions that have since been made to subsequent versions of the document as a result of CBP’s internal and external review process.”
The CBP draft report comes on the heels of a controversial study by DHS and the Justice Department, released on Jan. 16, which claimed that three out of every four individuals convicted of international terrorism or terrorism-related offenses were immigrants. Critics have charged that the joint report had serious methodological issues and cherry-picked the data to justify the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies.
The draft CBP report shares similar methodological problems, according to current and former DHS officials who spoke to FP.
A DHS official who reviewed the report and requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it said this terrorist incident analysis, which focuses exclusively on “radical Sunni Islamist militancy,” is currently the only such risk analysis product they know of circulating within the department. The official also noted that the draft’s title — “Demographic Profile of Perpetrators of Terrorist Attacks in the United States Since September 2001 Attacks Reveals Screening and Vetting Implications” — is meant to sound all-encompassing, when, in fact, it is limited to select cases.
“First, this report would steer policymakers to implement unfair and discriminatory surveillance of particular ethnic groups,” the DHS official told FP. “Second, the analysis, which is misleadingly packaged as a comprehensive analysis of post-9/11 terrorism, could lead policymakers to overlook significant national security threats.”
A former senior DHS official also expressed concern about the way the report was formulated. “It feels very much like the self-licking ice cream cone,” the former official said. “That is, they have presented an answer to a question that has not specifically been asked.”
The former official said the assessment appears to rely on a “sweeping classification to military-aged males from a very specific group across all classes of émigré.” Such an approach risks “putting a projection on an entire class that they are never fully American.”
The focus on a specific group of Muslims is particularly concerning, said another former DHS official, referring to the “at-risk” demographic selections. “The only things these people have in common is that they are Sunni Muslim,” the former official said. “The study was limited to Sunni Muslims, so that’s not a finding — that’s the design of the study.”
Even if the report were one of many group-focused reports, the limited data used in the study effectively bakes in bias against Sunni Muslims on a broad scale because its findings don’t narrow the population significantly, said Margo Schlanger, a professor of law at the University of Michigan, who reviewed the study.
“They’re saying we can use their demographics to identify at-risk people, but the demographics they identify are all over the map: citizens and noncitizens, native and naturalized, Middle Eastern, African, and South Asian,” said Schlanger, who served as the DHS officer for civil rights and civil liberties during the Barack Obama administration. “So it basically concludes that everybody who is Sunni Muslim needs extra scrutiny.”
The CBP recommendations wouldn’t be the first proposal to enhance the ongoing monitoring of foreigners in the last year, since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced plans to build an “extreme vetting” data-mining program to continuously monitor a select group of high-risk visa holders.
CBP’s vetting report differs from ICE’s recent vetting proposals, however, in that it focuses exclusively on Sunni Muslims and also has far-reaching implications for permanent residents and potentially even U.S. citizens. According to the report, Sunni Muslim residents identified by these metrics as having a “higher risk of becoming radicalized” would face more intensive evaluations from immigration authorities when applying for visas, benefits, or travel.
“CBP would use this kind of analysis to tighten their risk algorithms,” said John Sandweg, the former acting director of ICE and general counsel at DHS, told FP. “A lot of the recurring vetting CBP does is electronic vetting, running you against all their databases to see if there’s been any derogatory information to flag you for, or reviewing social media to check for things related to terrorism.”
But Sandweg said the assessment might not, on its own, imply unfair policies. This kind of report “wouldn’t be uncommon” for CBP’s Office of Intelligence to do. “There are a lot of issues as to how you do this targeting — age-based, country of origin-based are certainly things that have to be looked at.”
Others, however, feel the risk classification analysis is unusual in that it seems to target specifically Sunni Muslim immigrants.
“The primary threat we face today comes from people who are born here,” said John Cohen, the former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS, adding that the focus on those in the United States legally and who are not involved in criminal activity is a misuse of enforcement resources. “And disclosing that you are doing that will further erode the relationship between law enforcement and community members.”
Legal advocates say the report is another signal of the administration’s overt anti-Muslim stance.
“This is definitely troubling. This is really racial profiling,” said Abed Ayoub, the national legal and policy director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “It’s continuing to ignore the real threat in this country, and that’s white supremacists and their agenda.”
Sharifa Abbasi, an immigration lawyer, said the report suggests that DHS may be seeking to reinstitute programs like the George W. Bush administration’s National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which registered noncitizen visa holders almost exclusively from Muslim-majority countries.
“It’s not like Muslims have not been subjected to this before,” Abbasi said. “It’s a way for this administration to vilify certain ethnicities in support of their white nationalist agenda.”
The former senior DHS official, who expressed concerns about the sweeping classifications used in the report, said the assessment and its recommendations appear to reflect the broader policy goals of the Trump administration.
“When your immigration policy is formulated by Stephen Miller and Katie Gorka,” said the former official, referring to two senior Trump appointees known for attacking Muslim immigrants, “this is where governmental radicalization and overreach by departments becomes particularly odious.”
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Martin de Bourmont contributed reporting to this article.