Former Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said that the current influx of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border is bigger than anything the country has seen, and warned that people are entering the country that U.S. officials are unable to identify.
Johnson, who served under former President Barack Obama, made his comments during an appearance on Fox News on Thursday morning. He was asked about the American interest in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group.
On October 7, Hamas led the deadliest Palestinian militant attack on Israel in history. Israel subsequently launched its heaviest-ever airstrikes on Gaza. Hamas has been characterized by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.
The attacks have led to fears in the U.S. that known or suspected terrorists could be attempting to enter the country by exploiting the migration crisis along the southern border. Former President Donald Trump said this week that people who align with Hamas were pouring across the U.S.-Mexico border, although there is no evidence to support the claim.
Concern has also spread online after former Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal called for worldwide protests on Friday in support of the Palestinians. Mashaal’s statement also urged neighboring countries Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt to join the fight against Israel, Reuters reported.
Johnson addressed the concern that a lot of Americans may be feeling in light of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he advised citizens to not run and hide, and instead stay vigilant.
“There are a lot of people entering our southern border right now,” Johnson said. “Thousands and thousands. It’s a hemispheric move north bigger than anything we’ve ever seen. And the challenge for [U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP], for our DHS, the FBI, is to try to keep up.”
“Unfortunately, as you know, the system is broken, it’s horribly backlogged, and there’s a whole lot of people entering this country who we cannot identify,” Johnson added.
Newsweek reached out to the DHS via email for comment.
President Joe Biden‘s administration has repeatedly faced scrutiny from both sides of the aisle over its handling of the southern border, with Democrats most recently condemning DHS plans to move forward with additional border wall construction. According to CBP figures, as of August, more than 2.2 million migrants have had encounters with authorities along the U.S.-Mexico in the 2023 fiscal year, an increase from 2.1 million a year ago.
There has also been a rise in recent years in the number of people apprehended on the FBI’s terrorist watchlist, with border patrol agents apprehending 151 migrants along the southern border in the fiscal year 2023 who match the FBI’s screening system, according to the CBP. In fiscal year 2022, 98 people on the watchlist were apprehended after entering from Mexico.
It’s important to note, however, that the FBI screening system used to match migrants to the terrorist watchlist—the Terrorist Screening Data Set (TSDS)—does not necessarily mean that those apprehended are terrorists. The DHS said the people who match the TSDS criteria range “from known associates of watchlisted individuals, such as family members, to individuals directly engaged in terrorist activity.”