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Homeland Security chief seeks to soothe border worries

Homeland Security chief seeks to soothe border worries
A Border Patrol sentry post looms over a spillway off the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says the number of migrants attempting to cross the U.S. border is at its lowest since the 1970s. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles)

Frustrated by claims that Islamic terrorists have crossed the Southwest border, or that people carrying the Ebola virus could easily do so, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson decried "overheated rhetoric" Thursday, saying the number of migrants attempting to sneak across the border is at its lowest since the 1970s.

Johnson said four Kurdish migrants were arrested in September attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, but investigators found they had no link to terrorism.

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The four were members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, an organization that is fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq, Johnson said. He said the four would be deported.

This week, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) said on Fox News that Border Patrol agents had told him that at least 10 Islamic State militants had crossed from Mexico into Texas. The Homeland Security Department quickly called the claim "categorically false."

"In the absence of facts, the American public is susceptible to claims that we have an open, 'porous' border, through which unaccompanied minors and members of terrorist organizations such as ISIL may pass," Johnson said, using an acronym for Islamic State. He spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

People in public office, he added, "owe the public informed, careful and responsible dialogue, not overheated rhetoric that is certain to feed the flames of fear, anxiety and suspicion."

Some Republicans running for office in November have accused President Obama of devoting too few resources to protect the border from people infected with Ebola, the deadly virus believed to have killed more than 3,800 people in West Africa this year.

Johnson said all passengers arriving from West Africa would be checked for fever at five U.S. airports — John F. Kennedy International in New York, Newark Liberty International in New Jersey, Dulles International in Virginia, O'Hare International in Chicago and Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta — starting this weekend. Officials announced the plan this week.

About 150 people arrive every day who have been in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea, the three countries hardest hit by the epidemic, he said.

"We are enhancing our Ebola screening of air passengers from the three affected African countries, and we are continually evaluating whether more is appropriate," he said.

Johnson said thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America who crossed into the Rio Grande Valley in Texas last spring, sparking headlines and leading to concern in border communities, had immediately surrendered to Border Patrol agents.

The influx has now dropped to its lowest level since early 2013, partly due to public service announcements in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras warning of the dangerous journey to the U.S. border, and the seasonal drop in migration during the hot summer months.

"Unlike other spikes in migrations in the past, many of these families and kids expected to be apprehended once they crossed the Rio Grande," Johnson said. "They were not seeking to evade our Border Patrol agents."

He said the influx could grow again this winter, and the department is building special detention cells for families with children.

"We believe it is necessary to build more of that capability in the event we have another spike," Johnson said.

While most federal agencies have faced budget cuts, Congress has given the Border Patrol "unprecedented" resources, Johnson said.

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The Border Patrol has more than doubled in size since 2000. It now has 18,127 agents on the Southwest border, has built hundreds of miles of fencing, installed more than 10,000 ground sensors, and doubled its fleet of surveillance aircraft and helicopters, he said.

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