An NBC 7 investigation has revealed that "the U.S. government created a secret database of activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan and in some cases, placed alerts on their passports."
Approximately 5,000 Central America immigrants travelled through Mexico toward the U.S. border at the end of 2018. Advocates, journalists, and attorneys met the caravan at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego County. Those who met the immigrants at the border felt, in the months following, that they had become targets of increased scrutiny by border officials.
One photojournalist was brought into secondary inspections on three separate occasions. She was questioned about what she saw and photographed in the Tijuana shelters. Another journalist was detained by Mexican authorities when she crossed the border into Mexico City for 13 hours. She was denied entry and sent back to the U.S. Although the journalists felt that they were being monitored by the government, they could not prove it, until documents leaked to NBC 7 proved them right.
The documents, provided by an anonymous Homeland Security source, show that the U.S. government listed their names in a target database. Information was collected on each person, and alerts were placed on their passports. This prevented at least three photojournalists and one attorney from entering Mexico.
The documents show a SharePoint application used by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Border Patrol, Homeland Security, and agents from the FBI in San Diego. The investigation to monitor the migrant caravan was dubbed “Operation Secure Line.”
The documents provided by the anonymous source list those who should be screened at the border. Ten journalists (seven of which are U.S. citizens), a U.S. attorney, and 47 people labeled as “organizers” or “instigators” were listed. The list also includes advocates from places like Border Angels and Pueblo Sin Fronteras.
The documents are titled “San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019, Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators and Media” and are dated from January 9, 2019. The seal —which is the American and Mexican Flags above a banner reading “ILU-OASSIS-OMEGA" — "indicates that the documents are a product of the International Liaison Unit (ILU), which coordinates intelligence between Mexico and the United States."
The anonymous source said not only were the individuals flagged for enhanced screenings, agents also created dossiers on each person, including their photo, passport, social media accounts, and other personal information.
“We are a criminal investigation agency, we’re not an intelligence agency,” the Homeland Security source told NBC 7 Investigates. “We can’t create dossiers on people and they’re creating dossiers. This is an abuse of the Border Search Authority.”
A dossier for Nicole Ramos, the Refugee Director and attorney for Al Otro Lado, included details about the type of car she drives, the name of her mother, and her work and travel history.
“The document appears to prove what we have assumed for some time, which is that we are on a law enforcement list designed to retaliate against human rights defenders who work with asylum seekers and who are critical of CBP practices that violate the rights of asylum seekers,” Ramos told NBC 7.
Although Customs and Border Protection can screen anyone a second time, the documents reveal that the agency is paying increased attention to journalists, attorneys, and immigration advocates. Counterterrorism officials said that the CBP shouldn’t target individuals based on their jobs.
A spokesperson for the CBP said “Criminal events, such as the breach of the border wall in San Diego, involving assaults on law enforcement and a risk to public safety, are routinely monitored and investigated by authorities. It is protocol following these incidents to collect evidence that might be needed for future legal actions and to determine if the event was orchestrated,” the statement read. “CBP and our law enforcement partners evaluate these incidents, follow all leads garnered from information collected, conduct interviews and investigations, in preparation for, and often to prevent future incidents that could cause further harm to the public, our agents, and our economy.”
Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project said the situation was “outrageous.” She insisted, “This is an outrageous violation of the First Amendment. The government cannot use the pretext of the border to target activists critical of its policies, lawyers providing legal representation, or journalists simply doing their jobs. We are exploring all options in response,” Bhandari said.
NBC 7 spoke with photojournalist Ariana Drehsler, who was one of the seven journalists in the database of targets for secondary screenings.
Drehsler said, “I think there's a lot of misconceptions, maybe from both sides, about who are these people that are trying to seek asylum,” Drehsler said. “So I think as a photojournalist, it is my responsibility to cover that to the best of my abilities.”
Although Drehsler was “very transparent” about what she was doing, she was pulled into a secondary inspection when crossing back into the U.S. on December 30, 2018. She was allowed to leave after an hour, but she was warned that an alert was placed on her passport and if she crossed the border again, she would have to go through secondary screening. She was subsequently pulled into secondary screening twice more when crossing the border.
This increased scrutiny by border officials could stem the flow of information about what is truly happening on the U.S-Mexico border.