At first, the Trump administration claimed as many as 4,000 people on US terror watch lists had been detained at the southern border last year.
Still, the White House has continued to try to link terrorism to the southern border, claiming the president's plan to build a border wall is not just about stopping the flow of Central American migrants to the US, or fulfilling a campaign promise to his base, but a tool to thwart terrorism.
But the terrorism watch list itself, shrouded in secrecy, has been shown to be an unreliable database that has rapidly grown in recent years without explanation of how or why a person has been added to it. Few know how the terror watch list and no-fly lists work, but US officials, like the Trump administration most recently, have pointed to it to make a national security argument.
Yussuf Awadir Abdi, a Utah imam, was placed on a watch list after he boarded a flight to Kenya to pick up his family in the summer of 2017.
"I don't think they had a valid reason to put me on that list," he told BuzzFeed News by phone Tuesday. "I've been working here, paying taxes, and [being] a good citizen."
It was after he filed a lawsuit against the US that he was allowed back into the country and, he believes, removed from the no-fly list.
"They didn't tell me anything I did that was bad," said Abdi, who is a US citizen. "I was helping the community and improving the lives of good people. I was doing a lot of good things in the US, and then that's what happened."
Created in 2003, the Terrorist Screening Database was meant to keep a list of known or suspected terrorists — one of multiple government actions taken after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
But since its creation, the list has sparked multiple lawsuits across the country of US citizens, veterans, and others who claim to have been placed on the list without notice or cause while officials have refused to release information on how the list is made, maintained, or vetted.
"It's terrifying," Gadeir Abbas, a civil rights attorney in Chicago who has worked on lawsuits related to the watch lists, told BuzzFeed News. "For secret reasons, without meaningful recourse, people can be placed on this list. It's terrifying."
Abbas represents about 60 clients who were placed on a terror or no-fly government list, including in Virginia and Maryland, and argues that the lists can be not just punitive to innocent people, but useless in the government's fight against terrorism.
"It's never caught a terrorist," he said. "It's useless."
Over the years, Abbas said he's seen use of the list continue to expand, affecting not just the travel but the job prospects and financial lives of his clients. In several cases, he points out, the government has removed people from the lists once a lawsuit is filed.
That makes it more difficult for him to litigate the cases in court, but Abbas argues it also highlights the lack of substance used to place people on the list.
One of his clients, Yonas Fikre, was allegedly placed on the no-fly list after he refused to become an informant for the FBI, Abbas said. Fikre was removed from the list when a lawsuit was filed and, in September, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals revived his lawsuit against the federal government, saying his lawsuit could continue despite his being removed from the list.
According to a government audit of the list, there were approximately 700,000 names on the terror list in 2007, and it grows by about 20,000 "records" every month.
In court records submitted by the Terrorist Screening Center, the list appears to be growing at an increasing pace over time. In 2008, for example, the agency wrote in court records there were 66,862 "total adds" to the list — a common term used for new names submitted. In 2017, according to the document, there were 166,603 additions.
"It's just a bureaucratic tendency to expand and creep into every domain that is allowed," Abbas said. "No one will get rewarded to make a concerted decision to constrain it."
Omar Saleh, an attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, said he too has been successful at getting clients removed from the lists after filing lawsuits, but he has never received an answer on who had been added to them to begin with.
"Many of, all of our clients actually, have never been arrested or charged with a crime and are being placed on this list without adequate opportunity to address or challenge placement," he told BuzzFeed News.
In at least one case — which spanned seven years in court — the US admitted a Stanford University scholar, Rahinah Ibrahim, had been placed on the list because of human error when an FBI agent accidentally checked the wrong box in 2004 while investigating Muslims in San Francisco.
Despite the secrecy and unreliability, the list continues to be used, and is now being cited by the administration in its national security argument to build a wall on the southern border.
Civil rights attorneys, meanwhile, are still trying to find answers.
"What we want to know is what are the reasons, what are the guidelines of why people are placed on a list?" Saleh said.