In Tim Steller and I’s Sunday story — “Border seen as unlikely terrorist crossing point” — we addressed the vital issue of people apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol from “special interest” countries.

These are countries designated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as ones where people from there warrant special handling and processing based on terrorism risk factors. There are currently 35 countries on the list, though federal officials don’t make them public. We know, though, that the list includes countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As we reported in our story, the Border Patrol apprehended an average of 339 people from "special interest" countries at the U.S.-Mexico border each year over the past six years, Homeland Security data show. That's less than 1 percent each year of the total apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border.

None of the 2,039 people arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border in that span presented a credible terrorist threat, Homeland Security officials say.

Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of the apprehensions of people from “special interest” countries at the U.S.-Mexico border:

2005 - 364

2006 - 265

2007 - 296

2008 - 352

2009 - 363

2010 - 399

Fewer than 5 percent of those 2010 arrests  —19 — occurred in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which spans from New Mexico to Yuma County.

And none occurred in Pinal County, where Sheriff Paul Babeu resides. In fact, there’s been no people from “special interest” countries arrested in Pinal County over the last three-plus years, Homeland Security data shows.

Of the 4,549 illegal immigrants apprehended by the Border Patrol in Pinal County from fiscal year 2008 through May of fiscal year 2011, none were from special interest countries, the data shows.

The vast majority — 91 percent — were from Mexico. The other two countries that accounted for the most arrests were from Guatemala (253) and El Salvador (84).

We know this because the issue came up after this was attributed to Babeu in a Jan. 28, 2011 Ahwatukee Foothills News story:

“A significant percentage of illegal immigrants caught in Pinal County are from countries other than Mexico, he said, including ‘countries of interest’ such as Yemen, Somalia and Syria.”

After reading this, Pinal County Attorney James Walsh sent a March 15 letter to Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke asking him about the validity of the claim.

In an April 4 letter written to Walsh, Burke said there have been no arrests, deportations or prosecutions over the last three years in Pinal County of people from Yemen, Somalia and Syria.

“From the records we have reviewed and the officials we have canvassed, there is only one factual conclusion to draw: the Sheriff’s claim is simply wrong,” Burke wrote.

(Note: The letter from Walsh and the corresponding letter from Burke are attached as PDFs)

(Note 2: Sheriff Babeu's open letter to the President is also attached as a PDF. We used several quotes from this letter in the main story)


It’s important to know that the Customs and Border Protection list of “special interest” countries is different than the U.S. State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism.”

The State Department currently classifies four countries as “state sponsors of terrorism”: Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.

These are countries "determined by the Secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism," the State Department website shows.

There was, in fact, one person arrested in Pinal County from this list of countries, Homeland Security data shows. In 2010, a person from Cuba was arrested by the Border Patrol.

Often times you’ll read or hear references from officials and legislators to the “State Department’s countries of interest” or the “State Department’s special interest countries” but these references are, in fact, mixing two lists.

If you are interested in terrorism, you can find lots of valuable information in the State Department's "Country Reports on Terrorism."

That's where we found this, which pretty well capsulated the findings of our story:

The State Department's 2009 "Country Reports on Terrorism" found that "no known international terrorist organizations had an operational presence in Mexico and no terrorist incidents targeting U.S. interests and personnel occurred on or originated from Mexican territory."

The State Department said that there was no evidence of ties between Mexican organized crime and international terrorist groups. But it warns: "The violence attributed to organized-crime groups on the border, however, continued to strain Mexico's law-enforcement capacities, creating potential vulnerabilities that terrorists seeking access to the United States could exploit."