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Tomgram: Arnold Isaacs, The False Case Against "Foreign-Born Terrorists"

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

The warnings were stunning. Just six weeks before Nikolas Cruz killed 14 students and three teachers at his former high school in Parkland, Florida, a woman acquainted with him told the FBI tip line "I know he's going to explode" and expressed her fear that he might go to a school and begin "shooting the place up." Six weeks earlier, a family friend had called 911 and expressed fears about Cruz's gun collection. (He managed to accumulate at least 10 rifles, including the AR-15 he took to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.) "I need someone here because I'm afraid he comes back and he has a lot of weapons," said that friend. And late last year, even Cruz himself called 911 in an obvious bid -- at least in retrospect -- for attention and help. ("The thing is I lost my mother a couple of weeks ago, so like I am dealing with a bunch of things right now...")

As we know, none of these incidents, nor reports about Cruz to the local police, including a warning that he might "shoot up" a neighborhood school and that he could be a "school shooter in the making," resulted in the kind of action that might have stopped his future school rampage. But in Donald Trump's America, let me put my money on one thing: if his first name had been Ahmed, not Nikolas -- if he hadn't, that is, been a white male fitting the profile of a future school shooter but of Arabic background or had a name that had an Islamic ring to it -- the FBI and the local police would have been on his doorstep in no time flat.

From the moment Donald Trump rode that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 and promptly attacked Mexican immigrants as rapists, drug-runners, and criminals, he's conducted a domestic shock-and-awe campaign all the way to the Oval Office and beyond when it comes to immigrants, refugees, and Muslims of more or less any sort. (Ban them!) On such subjects, the relentlessness of the president and his key aides and officials, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has nurtured fears of the foreign, the alien, the non-white, and the un-American in this country in a major way. (Note that Nikolas Cruz, too, evidently denigrated Muslims and reportedly mowed a 40-foot swastika into a community field.) All in all, it's been an impressive, all-fronts campaign against those tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free and, as veteran foreign correspondent Arnold Isaacs shows today in his first TomDispatch piece, it extends even to the statistics the administration likes to offer on immigration and terrorism. Tom

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Using Fake Facts to Make Us Afraid
On Immigration and Terrorism, the Trump Administration Misleads About Its Own Misleading Data
By Arnold R. Isaacs

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 U.S. immigration system be reshaped because "we cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America."

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There's a misleading omission in Trump's formulation, though: homegrown fanatics have killed many more Americans on U.S. 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 report from the Justice and Homeland Security departments, which claimed that nearly three out of every four individuals convicted in international terror cases in U.S. 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."

Those and a long list of similar statements range from simply misleading to completely false. The deceptions occur in two stages. As a start, the data compiled within government agencies significantly overstate the incidence of Islamist terrorism in this country. Then the president and his associates regularly misrepresent what that already flawed data actually tells us, leaving the truth even farther behind.

"Terror-Related Cases" That Have No Relation to Terrorism

The basic database on which Trump and his associates rely is the "Chart of Public/Unsealed International Terrorism and Terrorism-Related Convictions." It's compiled and updated every year by the Justice Department's National Security Division and lists defendants convicted on federal charges in cases since September 11, 2001. Despite its title, the list includes a significant number of cases that are verifiably not terrorism-related and a good many more in which a terrorism connection was not only not proved but remains highly unlikely.

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Take Ansar Mahmood's case. It's far from the only example, but what makes it unusual is that the public record includes an explicit official acknowledgement that terrorism turned out not to be involved.

Mahmood, a 24-year-old legal immigrant from Pakistan, came under suspicion a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks when he was noticed taking photographs at a scenic spot along New York's Hudson River. A nervous security guard called the police to report that a Muslim-looking man might be taking pictures of a nearby reservoir and water treatment facility.

He was soon picked up, but investigators quickly concluded that he had no connection whatsoever to terrorism. They did, however, turn up evidence that he had registered a car and cosigned an apartment lease for a Pakistani couple who had overstayed their non-immigrant visas and were in the United States illegally. He was quickly charged with "harboring aliens," a deportable offense, and convicted. After a drawn-out appeal process, Mahmood was deported in 2005.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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