In a story placed prominently above the fold of the Washington Post’s Sunday edition, the federal immigration system finds itself under new criticism. Frankly, there is no question that the facilities meant to hold illegal immigrants is grossly underfunded. The result, as the Post story attempts to show, is poor treatment of the detainees. The vast majority of them do not pose a national security threat to the country, and they deserve better treatment, as the Post well explains.

Unfortunately, the Post story undermines its credibility in its overzealous attempt to prove its case. Rather than focusing on the facts, and letting them speak for themselves (as was done well with the opening examination of the case of Yusif Osman), the writers feel the need to take it a step further and make sure the reader doesn’t miss the capital-C Conclusions of this long long article. It’s as if they didn’t trust the readers to draw balanced and reasonable conclusions by themselves.

For example: The writers note that the detainees have less access to lawyers than convicted murderers and fewer comforts than terrorist suspects at Guantanomao Bay. (But offer no evidence of this.) And this: “But they [the illegal immigrants] are not terrorists. Most are working-class men and women or indigent laborers who made mistakes that seem to pose no threat to national security: a Salvadoran who bought drugs in his 20th year of poverty in Los Angeles; a legal U.S. resident from Mexico who took $50 for driving two undocumented day laborers into a border city. Or they are waiting for political asylum from danger in their own countries; a Somali without a valid visa trying to prove she would be killed had she remained in her village; a journalist who fled the Congo out of fear for his life, worked as a limousine driver and fathered six American children, but never was able to get the asylum he sought.”

Perhaps all of these cases are as cut-and-dried as the writers at the Post would have us believe. It is unfortunate, however, that they did not respect the abilities of their readers to draw their own conclusions rather than having it fed to them with such a transparent intention of portraying the undocumented workers (let us never use the word illegal immigrant) as victims only and having done nothing to contribute to their plights.

None of these individuals, the Post tells us, presented national security threats. Certainly it is hard to argue that any of these folks were necessarily working on behalf of Al Qaeda or the FARC. Still, a few more questions –since the Post went out of its way to assert that these folks weren’t threats to society – might have been helpful.

Why were those seeking political asylum denied asylum? During my tenure at ICE, we were constantly underwater with individuals seeking to game the system, and the appeal to political asylum is one of the more popular approaches. It would have been good journalism to have at least noted why the man was unable to get asylum but had managed to stay in the United States long enough to father six children.

Regarding the Salvadoran in his 20th year of poverty who was arrested for buying drugs: Was this his first arrest for drugs? Was he busted with a little marijuana or was it something more deadly, like heroin or meth? What quantity – enough for a night on the town just for himself or enough perhaps to sell to children in his neighborhood? There are a number of questions that should have been answered here because the implication seems to be that this man who was arrested for some kind of drug activity shouldn’t be in jail – nevermind that American citizens could expect to possibly face jail time for similar illegal activities.

More troubling, particularly in light of the Post’s assertion that these individuals posed no national security threat, is the individual who was caught smuggling humans across the border. Human smuggling is, indeed, the very definition of a national security threat.

The case is framed in such a way as to suggest that there is obviously no threat. Hey, he was driving a couple of guys across the border for a quick buck. And, indeed, it is likely true that there is nothing more to this story. However, it is probably equally true that the man who was illegally driving these two unknown immigrants across the border did not bother to ask too many questions. He was breaking the law, and in the course of breaking the law, it’s best not to ask a lot of awkward questions of your co-conspirators.

Why does this matter? Because despite the stereotypes in the media, not every terrorist is going to look like he or she comes from Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. They don’t have official “Member of the International Brotherhood of Terrorism” identification cards. They will say things like, “I just need to get a job to feed my family” rather than “Will you help sneak me across the border so that I can blow up the Pentagon?” They will look like Middle Eastern in some cases, yes, but they will also look German or French or Canadian or American or Mexican in others. They will look like me and you.

One of the most tired questions asked by reporters about border security – especially of programs like US VISIT or SEVIS, etc. – is: “How many terrorists has this program caught?” The inference is that if you answer none, then the program is an obvious failure.

However, if SEVIS had existed in 1993 or 2001, it is entirely plausible that neither of those murderous attacks would have occurred because a significant number of the terrorist plotters came into the country using student visas. Had SEVIS been in place, these individuals would have set off alarms the moment they did not show up on campus, and they would have been tracked by federal agents and sent home. However, we would not have known that we “caught” a terrorist. We would have only known that some guy wanting to “attend college” in the United States had been turned away at the border or sent home shortly thereafter.

I do not know why the U.S. Citizen from Mexico decided to smuggle two illegal immigrants into the United States. Probably, he just wanted the 50 bucks. Probably he asked no questions. And a guy who is willing to smuggle in certain humans or certain contraband (whether he thinks he’s just moving some day laborers or maybe some drugs) is most decidedly a threat. If you can smuggle in a day laborer, you can smuggle in anybody – whether you know who they are or not. If you can smuggle in a little dope, you can smuggle in much more dangerous items hidden in that dope.

One day, a terrorist who doesn’t look like a “terrorist” (whatever that means) is going to ask some unethical fellow to smuggle him into the United States. He’ll say he just needs a job. And then he’ll be in the United States, unknown to the authorities and connecting with others who managed to get into the country through similar vulnerabilities in our border security.

Or who knows. Maybe he already has.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More