When you see an immigrant or a foreign visitor, especially from a Muslim country, should your first thought be that you might be looking at a possible terrorist?
Clearly, that’s how the Trump administration wants Americans to react. It was the message in the president’s first address to Congress a year ago last week when he declared that “the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.” At that time, he urged that the US immigration system be reshaped because “we cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America.”
There’s a misleading omission in Trump’s formulation, though: Homegrown fanatics have killed many more Americans on US soil than foreign-born terrorists have. The disparity grows much wider if you include mass killings carried out not for any religious or ideological cause but (as we have recently been tragically reminded) by mentally troubled individuals. Indeed, in just two such shootings in the last five months in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Parkland, Florida, deranged shooters with assault rifles killed more than three times as many people as all foreign-born jihadists have killed in this country in the last 16 years.
Another key fact is missing, too: Only a fairly small number of those “terror-related” convictions were for acts committed or planned in the United States. Many more involved support, in various forms, for terrorist activity in other countries.
Still, Trump and his associates have repeatedly declared that terrorists sneaking into the country through a too-lax immigration system are a pressing threat to public safety in the United States. That was, for instance, the administration’s principal headline earlier this year when it released a reportfrom the Justice and Homeland Security departments, which claimed that nearly three out of every four individuals convicted in international terror cases in US federal courts from 9/11 through 2016 were foreign born—a total of 402, by their count. Announcing that report, Attorney General Jeff Sessions proclaimed that it highlighted the ways in which “our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety.” In the same press release, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned that the United States “cannot continue to rely on immigration policy based on pre-9/11 thinking that leaves us woefully vulnerable to foreign-born terrorists.”