“Military age men” at San Diego’s southern border

Among the several dozen Pakistani and Afghan men who have entered the U.S. illegally, coming into San Diego from Tijuana, two were found to have ties to terrorist groups, according to a letter sent by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter to the Department of Homeland Security.

Muhammad Azeem and Muktar Ahmad, both in their 20s, surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol agents in September, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. One was listed on the Terrorist Screening Database for “associations with a known or suspected terrorist. The other was a positive match for derogatory information in an alternative database,” according to Hunter’s letter.

Azeem and Ahmad are among dozens of men — described by Border Patrol agents as “military age and carrying U.S. cash” who began entering the U.S. through a Tijuana-based human-smuggling pipeline in September.

Pakistanis and Afghans crossing the border illegally in the San Diego sector are pretty unusual, according to Border Patrol statistics. In 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained fewer than 400 Pakistanis throughout the entire United States — at the ports of entry, airports, and along the border between ports.

Between October 1, 2014, and Sept. 30, 2015, the San Diego sector of the Border Patrol detained 18 Pakistanis and 1 Afghan, according to Border Patrol statistics. Between October 1 and mid-November of last year, 2 Afghans and 22 Pakistanis reportedly surrendered to Border Patrol agents.

“We have detained more Pakistanis and Afghans in the first month of this fiscal year than we did all last year,” assistant chief Richard Smith confirmed in November.

In the month and a half since mid-November, 3 more Afghans and 6 more Pakistanis were detained by the Border Patrol (not including those detained at the ports of entry).

Customs officials did not return calls for their statistics on detentions at the ports of entry.

The decline in arrests had not lessened concerns, however. Federal agents say they believe that the Pakistanis have begun making an effort to avoid being caught.

Until November, they would enter in groups and seek a federal agent to surrender to, according to union officials. It is believed that they did this because illegal entrants who are not Mexican citizens and who are deemed to not pose a significant threat are generally given a date to appear at immigration court and then released on their own recognizance. (Central Americans coming to Texas and the Roma in San Diego both used the same method to enter the U.S. in the past two years.)

But that method has changed, National Border Patrol Council president Terence Shigg said. While the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector continues to apprehend Pakistanis and Afghans, they are now finding them travelling alone and often farther north of the border than the earlier surrenders.

“It’s very concerning,” Shigg said. “We have no idea what their actual intentions are because we have no effective way of backtracking. Just the males are coming and there’s no way for us to know for certain who they are and why.”

Both Azeem and Ahmad remain in ICE custody, spokeswoman Lauren Mack confirmed. ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations is part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, she noted, and works closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on terrorism-related investigations.

Stratfor vice president of intelligence Fred Burton, interviewed last month, noted that identity documents from Afghanistan and Pakistan should set off alarms.

“The challenge of getting these individuals is getting who they actually are confirmed — proving identity is difficult in that environment,” Burton said. “Afghanistan and Pakistan do not have a robust identification system — these are places where there is tremendous potential for official document and visa fraud.”

Shigg said he believes that federal officials should be talking openly about this new development and committing more resources to keeping people from such countries in custody until they can be completely vetted.

“It’s not as if they don’t have the systems to sort, but they have to dedicate the resources and detention space to sorting this out,” he said. “These are credible threats.”