When James Cordero crossed back into the United States from Tijuana on Christmas Eve, he thought he would be making a quick run to his car to get the rest of the donated toys he planned to bring back across to a migrant shelter.
Instead, Cordero, a U.S. citizen, spent more than two hours in an interrogation room in secondary inspection at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, where Customs and Border Protection officials questioned him about the caravan that arrived in Tijuana in November. They asked about leaders and the overall mood at the shelter.
“I don’t know,” James recalled telling the officials. “My Spanish sucks. I’m just bringing donations.”
Then they showed him photos, asking him if he saw anyone he could identify. He didn’t know anyone on the first two pages.
Then the officers showed him a third page. Cordero, who volunteers with Border Angels, saw several people he recognized, including members of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a volunteer group that helped escort the caravan once it crossed into Mexico.
Cordero soon learned from other advocates and volunteers that he was not the only one who had been stopped and interrogated about his interactions with migrants in Tijuana. At least a couple dozen others — freelance photojournalists, advocates and volunteers — had all spent time in secondary inspection, many on multiple occasions.
Most, but not all, had been present when some members of the caravan were trying to cross the border illegally, many during an incident on New Year’s Eve that resulted in U.S. officials firing tear gas south.
Many who know they are flagged now think twice before crossing the border, recognizing they will have to give up time and information each time they head to the U.S. They wonder whether CBP’s intelligence gathering might be meant to intimidate them or prevent them from doing the work they had been doing south of the border.
CBP declined to comment on the record.
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, particularly when it comes to cellphone and laptop searches.
“It’s a very tricky area of law because it’s developing, and we’re seeing a highly aggressive series of behaviors,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego.
The way journalists and humanitarian activists described being targeted by CBP could be infringing on their constitutional rights under the First Amendment, she said.
Rodrigo, a volunteer and photographer who didn’t want his last name used because he worried about retaliation from CBP, said he hasn’t gone back to Tijuana since he was stopped at the border.
“I’m very intimidated at the moment,” said Rodrigo, who is also a U.S. citizen. “I don’t feel safe going across the border. I really don’t.”
Like many of the other volunteers who have been targeted, he was present at the border in the early hours of New Year’s Day when U.S. border officials fired tear gas at a group of about 150 migrants who were trying to cross illegally.
He heard about the incident after the first round of tear gas was launched and headed to the stretch of highway to document. He made it in time to see another round of tear gas, he said.
CBP said shortly after the incident that some migrants threw rocks at them before they launched the tear gas canisters. A journalist who witnessed the event reported that he only saw rocks thrown after the first rounds of tear gas.
When Rodrigo was questioned, officials asked him about what happened that night, he said.
Jake Harris, another U.S. citizen who headed to Tijuana in November to help the arriving migrants, has also been questioned about his involvement with the caravan and what happened on New Year’s.
He said he saw the group at the border as he was passing on the highway that night and decided to stop and film it as part of his work with Indigenous Life Movement, an independent media group.
He’s been sent to secondary inspection seven times, every time he’s crossed the border since the beginning of January. It hasn’t stopped Harris from crossing the border, but he doesn’t go nearly as often as he used to.
“It’s always the same questions,” Harris said.
They ask about people who might’ve encouraged or aided migrants crossing illegally. They ask about what he’s doing in Tijuana and why he wants to help asylum seekers. They ask who he’s working with and whether he thinks what he’s doing will really make a difference.
Doug McLean, who, along with Harris, documents and witnesses events for Indigenous Life Movement as a volunteer citizen journalist, was also sent to secondary inspection twice in January and interrogated about the New Year’s incident.
“The first time, my heart was racing,” recalled McLean, a U.S. and Australia dual citizen.
McLean wasn’t even in Tijuana during the holiday, he said. He was with his parents in New Jersey.
As part of his volunteer film work, he had live-streamed a video of a woman climbing over the border barrier before the holidays, he said.
A number of photojournalists, mostly freelancers, who captured footage of migrants crossing over the border barrier have also been flagged for questioning.
Among them is Kitra Cahana, who was also denied entry to Mexico when she tried to return to cover the new caravan that was crossing from Guatemala.
Cahana, a U.S. and Canada dual citizen whose work from Tijuana has appeared in the New York Times, the German newspaper Zeit and L’Obs magazine, photographed the group at the border on New Year’s and was hit by some kind of pellet fired by CBP, she said. She documented people trying to cross illegally to request asylum on several other occasions, and she believes that CBP photographed her from across the border at least twice while she was doing her work.
After Mexico sent her back to Detroit, one of the officials in the airport’s secondary inspection asked her if she’d had a run-in with Mexican authorities on the border around Christmas.
Cahana recalled Mexican police stopping her and several other photographers to see their IDs. The police ended up taking pictures of their passports.
Two U.S. citizen attorneys working with Tijuana-based Al Otro Lado to provide legal support to migrants, including caravan members, were also recently denied entry to Mexico.
Alexandra Ellerbeck, North America program coordinator with the Committee to Protect Journalists, said she’s aware of about a dozen journalists who have been questioned in secondary inspection about the caravan.
“It’s a huge problem because you’re in such a coercive setting when you’re being pulled into secondary,” Ellerbeck said.
It’s not the first time she’s heard about CBP trying to mine journalists — particularly those who cover the Middle East — for information when they enter the country. But the trend at San Ysidro stands out because of how many have been questioned at the same port of entry in the same time frame.
“They should not be asking journalists to act as informants,” Ellerbeck said. “The whole enterprise of journalism is based on a journalist’s ability to protect information or protect sources.”
Six members of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the group that Cordero saw pictures of when he was interrogated, have also been sent to secondary inspection, according to Alex Mensing, who volunteers with the group. All six are U.S. citizens.
For some of them, the screenings began when a different migrant caravan — that the group helped — arrived back in the spring of 2018, Mensing said.
Pueblos Sin Fronteras noticed that visits to secondary inspection became more intense in recent months, Mensing said. One member, Jeff Valenzuela, was handcuffed to a bench twice when crossing the border, Mensing said.
Mensing has chosen to stay in Mexico rather than deal with more interrogations.
“I’m not going to cross until I absolutely have to,” Mensing said.
Cordero was not in Tijuana for New Year’s, nor has he photographed migrants at the border barrier.
He says that he’s been targeted for secondary screenings in part because of an Instagram post he made criticizing CBP’s decision to fire tear gas on caravan members the Sunday after Thanksgiving when they marched to the border.
Cordero was on the north side of the border by the Las Americas Premium Outlets when the caravan marched from its camp in Tijuana’s Zona Norte. From the parking lot behind the shopping mall, he witnessed the exchange between the migrants and U.S. officials.
He described what he saw, migrants at the fence asking for water and someone from the north-side crowd tossing them a bottle. He snapped a photo of a CBP official who turned his weapon away from the border and pointed it at the crowd watching from the parking lot.
“This was just an overreach and scare tactic by a group of government employees trying to feel tough,” Cordero wrote. “They’re a joke, and deserve the respect they give the people.”
Someone who appeared to be the officer in the photo, as well as people who said they were the officer’s family members, argued with Cordero over Instagram about the day’s events and asked him to take down the photo or block out the man’s name on his uniform.
Though Cordero had been going to Tijuana as a volunteer about three times a month, he didn’t go for all of January because he worried about how long it would take to come back. When he crossed for the first time in more than a month on Sunday, he was able to return to the U.S. without incident.
Getting through without issue one time doesn’t make him think it won’t happen again, he said. He’s still going to plan extra time when he crosses in case he gets interrogated.
“I’m not going to treat it like I’ve got a hall pass now,” he said. “I will probably come down real soon and test it out again.”