Documents published Wednesday indicate that the federal government has monitored a group of journalists, attorneys, advocates and activists who interacted with a migrant caravan that arrived in Tijuana late last year.
As recently as a week ago, an attorney with Al Otro Lado, a legal services organization that has been supporting migrants in Tijuana, was stopped when trying to enter Mexico in what some believe is targeting of people who either worked with the caravan or covered the story of its journey to the border.
NBC7 in San Diego published leaked documents Wednesday indicating that the U.S. government has kept dossiers on a group of 59 advocates, activists, attorneys and journalists it is investigating in relation to the migrant caravan that arrived in Tijuana in November. Many of those in the dossier appeared in previous articles by The San Diego Union-Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and The Intercept talking of frequent interrogations at the border or being denied entry to Mexico.
A number of people in the group began to come forward earlier this year after being repeatedly interrogated in secondary inspection when crossing north through the San Ysidro Port of Entry. They said they were asked questions about the caravan and about the people helping it.
Others, like freelance photographer Kitra Cahana, found themselves blocked from entering Mexico. Cahana was twice denied entry to the country when she tried to return to continue her work covering migrants.
Most, but not all, of the people interviewed by the Union-Tribune who believed they had been targeted by Customs and Border Protection for investigation had been present when some members of the caravan were trying to cross the border illegally, such as the incident on New Year's when more than 100 migrants gathered on the south side of the border that resulted in U.S. officials firing tear gas. (Officials maintain that they were responding to rocks being thrown at them, but some witnesses have disputed the order of events.)
The published documents indicate that officials placed alerts on some of the people in the group and canceled visas or SENTRI passes for others. At least nine people in the documents appear to have red X’s over their photos, indicating that they were arrested. Many of those nine were later deported from Mexico.
When asked about the dossiers, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman said that the arriving caravans had “added increased and new challenges to an already complicated and dangerous mission.”
“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,” the CBP official said.
“These activities could result in a more thorough review of those seeking entrance into our country. 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. 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.”
Exactly how much authority border officials have to search and interrogate versus how much civil rights protect individuals passing through is still being litigated in court.
Attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union called for more oversight and accountability of the agency after learning of the dossiers.
“This is an outrageous violation of the First Amendment," said Esha Bhandari, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. "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.”
Al Otro Lado attorney Erika Pinheiro’s name doesn’t appear on the documents that NBC7 published, but her colleague Nicole Ramos does. (The news outlet blurred many of the faces and names in the dossier, but Ramos appears to be the only person identified as an attorney in the pages that were published. Some of those in the documents do not have a role identified.)
Pinheiro was denied entry when she tried to enter Tijuana on foot from San Diego in late January because of an international alert placed on her passport, she said. She spent about a month in the U.S. working to get a residence card to be able to return.
“All my family lives in Mexico,” Pinheiro said. “The whole time I was out, my family was separated. They removed me from Mexico without my kid.”
The alert triggered again when she drove across at the San Ysidro Port of Entry a little over a week ago and took her residence card paperwork to Mexican immigration officials, she said. One of the supervisors told her that the alert is for people who have national security or criminal issues, she said.
She had to fill out a questionnaire that asked whether she had warrants in other countries and if she’d ever been convicted of a crime. Officials at the port of entry sent her information to Mexico City, and she was allowed into the country after waiting for about an hour.
“The last time they were much more aggressive,” Pinheiro said of her experience. “This time they seemed generally confused.”
A Mexican immigration official confirmed that Pinheiro had to go through an “administrative process” at the port of entry because of an alert on her passport. The official was not able to share the reason for the flag.
Pinheiro believes that the United States government placed the alert on her passport.
“It seems like the United States government is targeting anyone who provides assistance to migrants,” Pinheiro said. “There’s a very clear pattern of that.”
Nora Phillips, legal director of Al Otro Lado, was also denied entry to Mexico in January because of a flag on her passport.
Al Otro Lado is part of several lawsuits against the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
The State Department and the Department of Justice referred the San Diego Union-Tribune to Mexican immigration officials for comment on Pinheiro's case.
The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the record.
Days before Pinheiro’s second incident at the border, attorneys included a request for information about the flag on Pinheiro’s passport as part of the discovery process in a case alleging that the federal government illegally turns away asylum seekers. Court documents related to the attorney’s request in the case are sealed.
A statement from organizations involved in the case said that attorneys had filed for expedited discovery to determine whether the alerts on the two Al Otro Lado attorneys’ passports were in retaliation to the lawsuit and Al Otro Lado’s advocacy for asylum seekers. It points out that the work that Pinheiro and other Al Otro Lado attorneys do, including representing clients in the lawsuits against the U.S. government, requires them to be able to travel to Mexico.
Though Pinheiro has been able to return to Mexico, she worries that she will still be denied entry from any other country because of the alert on her passport.