BROOKE: So as politicians and their constituents chose what to fear from a cornucopia of options related to the government's plan of action against ISIS, some in the media, especially at Fox News, amplify the confusion by sweeping problems here at home into the spin.
“Well fear is growing this morning in Texas where reports suggest ISIS fighters may have formed a new terror cell somewhere along the Mexican border." [female announcer]
"And what is the deal with Homeland Security official only now confirming what we've been telling you for years. The US border is a potential target for terror groups like ISIS." [male announcer]
“Are you saying that ISIS is ready to come across, poised to perhaps execute what they have threatened to do: attacks on the United States, drown us in our own blood, is that what you’re saying?”
Although at a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Homeland Security officials publicly declared that there is no credible intelligence on the issue, breathless reports abound of ISIS terror cells scattered along the U.S.-Mexico border. Here, as is usually the case, the pundits and anchors are taking their cues from some on Capitol Hill.
Here’s Senator John McCain.
McCain: There is a great concern that our Southern border, and our Northern border, is porous and that they will be coming across.
Pennsylvania Representative Lou Barletta
We know that terrorist networks have been using our porous Southern border and a broken immigration system to enter the United States.”
And Arizona Representative Trent Franks
We know that ISIS is present in Ciudad Juarez or they were within the last few weeks and so there’s no question that they have designs on trying to come into Arizona.
And Texas Governor Rick Perry
There is the obvious great concern that because of the condition of the border from the standpoint of it not being secure, and us not knowing who is penetrating across, that individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be, and I think is a very real possibility, that they may have already used that.
Congressman Beto O’Rourke represents the 16th District of Texas which includes the border city of El Paso, and serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security. He says that alleged ISIS terror cells are just the most recent in a long history of unfounded claims that evil awaits on the Mexican border.
O’ROURKE: Unfortunately, this is nothing new. You know, I was reading something about this earlier today and saw that it went all the way back to at least the Mexican Revolution. When there was - a legitmate fear because there were some incursions most famiously by Pancho Villa.
BROOKE: And we're talking about?
O’ROURKE: A hundred years ago. But really since then this has been a place where when there is some threat to the United States and the world this is where we assume that that threat is going to manifest itself. Where we will be invaded. Where the soft underbelly of the United States will be pierced. And our worst nightmares will come true. And so you move a little further down in time and you're in the 1980s and we are preoccupied with Libya as a state sponsor of terrorism. I was looking a El Paso Herald Post headline from December 11, 1981 and the headline is: BORDER CHECKED FOR LIBYAN HIT SQUAD. And of course that hit squad never materializes. It never proves to be true but whether it's Libyans back then. Or Iranians a little bit later on. Or Al-Qaeda after 9/1. And so this latest manifestation of it, of ISIS massing on the Southern border about to invade the United States thru Texas is just the latest unfounded scare that comes from those who don't live on or understand the border. So those of us who live there have a responsibility to help set the record straight.
BROOKE: Was there a point at which Soviets were threatening us from the South? And I'm not talking about Cuba.
O’ROURKE: Right, yeah. There's another headline from the 1980s. The headline is MEXICO IS SOVIET OBJECTIVE, and the subhead is: RUSSIANS COULD START TROUBLE ON OUR BORDERS. A long standing fear maybe going back to the Zimmerman telegram in World War I where the Germans infamously offered Mexico assistance in regaining their territory which was lost in the war to the United States in 1848. That somehow, some other power is going to exploit our Southern border, our relationship with Mexico. To do us harm. And of course that also never materialized.
BROOKE: It isn't just America's national enemies, though. Some of the threat seems to be...uh…biological. We hear about tuberculosis coming up thru the border. Even, lately, Ebola, right? And I remember in 2005 Lou Dobbs said in exact contradiction to all the evidence that leprosy was coming up through the border.
O’ROURKE: I don't know where this stuff comes from. I visited one of the detention centers where families are held in Artesia, New Mexico and of the 833 family members there I think something like 2 or 3 had chicken pox that was as significant and severe as the public health threat has been from Central America but that doesn't stop people from talking about Ebola. Or talking about bringing in disease and viruses and pathogens into the United States. When you look at the facts, you find something very different.
BROOKE: As counter-terrorism officials have said, millions of people arrive here legally on commercial flights every day. But there's something about this border that seems to focus our fear. What is it do you think about this border that makes it such an attracter?
O’ROURKE: I think it could be that this border with Mexico is really our border with the rest of the world in a way that the Canadian border is not. Mexicans speak a different language. They, in large part, look different than the majority of the United States. Mexico is in connected to countries in Central America. Provides a transit point from other nations who may have citizens trying to enter the United States. I think, for lack of a better term, it is 'the other' and it's just something that we are suspicious of, don't understand and therefore are afraid.
BROOKE: Is there a legitimate fear, isn't it true sometimes that bad stuff and people come up through the border. And I assume you're going to say 'yes.' So my follow-on question would be -- is it also equally true of Canada? Or is it more dangerous down south?
O’ROURKE: It depends on what you're more afraid and what you consider dangerous. There's definitely more drugs crossing into the United States from Mexico than there are from Canada. There are definitely more migrants crossing into the United States from Mexico than there are from Canada. But if your concern is about terror and terrorists then your priority should be the northern border. Or airports. Or homegrown US citizen terrorists that are in the communities in which we live already. I fear that we may be taking our eye off the ball and we may be exposing ourselves potentially to attack by being so overly fixated on the southern border. And it doesn't mean we should be vigilant there. And it doesn't mean we shouldn't guard against potential terrorist attacks. It's definitely a possibility. It only means that given everything we know -- and I heard this directly from the director of the FBI, the director of the national counterterrorism center, and the Secretary of Homeland Security - we had a hearing in Congress - each one of them said that to date, there has not ever been a terrorist plot, a terrorist, a successful or otherwise tied to our southern border with Mexico. Doesn't mean it couldn't happen somewhere down the line. But let's used an evidence based, risk based approach to this. And commit our resources where they're most effective.
BROOKE: So given what you know and where you are. What do you think is the impact of this frightening rhetoric of the nefarious gathering at our southern border.
O’ROURKE: It makes it very hard for communities like the one I represent in El Paso to attract talent or capital or investment when you have national leaders and even our own governor raising false allegations of terror or violence or danger on the border. And case in point for me - I met a wonderful young man this weekend who had just moved to El Paso from another part of the country. And he did so because his wife got a job offer. And he said at first they were going to decline it, because the only thing they had heard about El Paso was that governor Rick Perry had claimed that car bombs were going off in the streets of El Paso to show how dangerous the border was and they have a young child and he said, 'I don't want to move to a place that's got car bombs going off.'
BROOKE: Did Perry make that up?
O’ROURKE: He made it up. He made it up. And he's the governor of the state in which El Paso sits. And more recently he said terrorists were crossing over. You know, he's running for President right now and he's able to help raise his profile and make a name for himself by making these bizarre, outrageous allegations which if you don't live on the border don't sound so bizarre or outrageous. It kind of fits into what you've been hearing all along the border. Very few people in public life, in the media have been saying anything to the contrary.
BROOKE: You don't see that kind of fear manifesting itself in the borderstates? I mean Arizona seems to have an issue.
O’ROURKE: In some rural parts of the border there are concerns and I think sometimes legitimate concerns of very remote ranches and households who don't have law enforcement nearby and know that there are migrants and traffickers who are crossing their property. And I'm not in the situation; I can only imagine what that feels like. But in communities like El Paso with nearly a million people joined with Juarez of 1.5 million, it's truly a positive experience for most people. And when national pundits were worried about spill over violence when Ciudad Juarez was in the depths of one of the worst most brutal periods in its history where thousands were dying I think there a couple of murders in El Paso that might have been connected to cartel activity in Mexico. These outrageous claims and allegations that are made by people like my Governor and others here in Congress in Washington DC - really hurt the border and really misdirect precious national security resources to the wrong place.
BROOKE: Congressman, thank you very much.
O’ROURKE: Thank you.
BROOKE: Congressman Beto O'Rourke represents Texas' 16th Congressional district which includes the border city of El Paso and he serves on the house committee on Homeland Security.