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World & Nation

Immigrant rights attorneys and journalists denied entry into Mexico

Nora Phillips, right, is in tears as she is greeted by fellow immigration attorney Helen Sklar, left, as Phillips arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. Phillips was sent home when her U.S. passport was flagged while she tried traveling to Mexico.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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Two U.S. immigrant rights attorneys and two journalists who have worked closely with members of a migrant caravan in Tijuana said they had been denied entry into Mexico in recent days after their passports were flagged with alerts by an unknown government.

Their stories are nearly identical: All four report being detained by Mexican immigration authorities while trying to enter the country, and eventually being turned back because the authorities said their passports had been flagged.

It is unclear which government or governments, if any, might have issued the alerts.

The U.S. State Department declined to comment Friday. The Homeland Security Department and Customs and Border Protection declined to provide comment attributable to an official. The Justice Department directed The Times to Mexican officials. Representatives for the Mexican government did not respond to requests for comment.

The two attorneys who were denied entry into Mexico, Nora Phillips and Erika Pinheiro, are leaders of Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit group based in Los Angeles and Tijuana that has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

In 2017, the group filed a lawsuit accusing the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency of unlawfully depriving asylum seekers access to the U.S. asylum process.

In recent months, Al Otro Lado has sent lawyers to Tijuana to advise members of a Central American migrant caravan that arrived late last year at the Mexican border city. Some of the caravan’s members are seeking asylum in the U.S. Al Otro Lado recently partnered with two members of Congress to escort a group of asylum seekers to the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, where the group waited overnight until Customs and Border Protection officials agreed to accept the migrants for processing.

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Phillips, the legal and litigation director for Al Otro Lado, said she was detained Thursday evening after flying to Guadalajara for a planned vacation with her husband and 7-year-old daughter.

Mexican immigration agents scanned her passport and told her it triggered “an alert,” she said.

Phillips said she was separated from her daughter and husband and escorted into a separate room in which Mexican officials peppered her with questions, including about how much money she was carrying, whether she had weapons training, and whether she ever had been arrested or convicted of a crime.

Her daughter was standing just outside the room and started crying. She was allowed to join her mother while the pair were detained for nine hours and had to sleep on a cold floor without food or water, Phillips said. Ultimately, they were turned away and placed on a flight back to Los Angeles.

At a news conference upon her return at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, Phillips said Mexican officials insinuated that it wasn’t Mexico that had placed the alert. She believes the U.S. government is to blame, although she provided no evidence.

Trump administration officials have repeatedly accused immigration attorneys of coaching migrants to make false asylum claims. In 2017, then-Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions criticized what he called “dirty immigration lawyers who are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum.”

“I think this is retaliation,” Phillips said. “I think this is because we sued the U.S. government. I think it’s that we’re pointing out gross, flagrant human rights violations being committed by the U.S. government, and they don’t like that.”

Pinheiro, the group’s policy and litigation director, said Mexican immigration officials turned her away under similar circumstances Monday as she sought to cross into Tijuana on foot.

Pinheiro, a U.S. citizen who lives in Tijuana, said she was denied the chance to fetch her 10-month-old son, who has dual citizenship and was in Tijuana at the time.

Two journalists who covered the migrant caravan and are not associated with Al Otro Lado described having similar experiences.

Kitra Cahana, a freelance photographer who holds U.S. and Canadian passports, said she was denied entry to Mexico twice in recent weeks.

After flying from Detroit to Mexico City on Jan. 17, she said, Mexican immigration agents detained her at the airport for 13 hours, explaining that her passport had been flagged. She said one official said that when her passport had been scanned, it triggered an Interpol alert. She said the official told her the alert had been triggered by “the Americans.”

Cahana flew back to the U.S. and later flew to Guatemala, where she tried to enter Mexico at a port of entry by foot Jan. 26. She said she was detained for about five hours and was again denied entry.

Cahana, whose work has been published in the New York Times and National Geographic, spent six weeks in Tijuana this winter photographing the caravan.

She spent some of that time at the border, taking pictures of migrants as they sought to cross a fence into the U.S. Cahana said she and other photographers present were occasionally harassed by U.S. Border Patrol agents, who on several occasions took photographs of her and other journalists who were working on the Mexican side of the border.

Cahana said she also once was stopped by a Mexican police officer, who took a photograph of her passport.

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She is now waiting on the Guatemalan side of the border, still hoping to access Mexico to continue her work.

“I’m in limbo,” she said. “What kind of list am I on? Who put me on this list? And how many journalists is this affecting?”

Associated Press photographer Daniel Ochoa, a Spanish citizen, said he was denied entry into Mexico as he tried to cross into Tijuana from San Diego on Jan. 20. He was detained for four hours before being turned back.

Like Cahana, Ochoa had photographed members of the migrant caravan, including those who sought to cross the border illegally. He said he too had been photographed by Border Patrol agents and that Mexican police also had taken a photograph of his passport.

Former San Diego U.S. Attorney Charles LaBella, who was a federal prosecutor for some 25 years, said the reports were surprising.

“I’ve never seen it,” LaBella said Friday.

Typically, he said, putting out an alert on someone’s passport through Interpol or a law enforcement agency “usually requires some sort of legal process,” with a judge required to approve the request or charges filed.

Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law expert and professor at UCLA, said the reports, if true, were troubling.

“I ask the question whether this is a retaliatory move on the part of the government,” he said. “It represents an attempt to interfere with the right to counsel.”

Linthicum reported from Mexico City, Carcamo reported from Los Angeles and Molly O’Toole reported from Washington. Reporter Kate Morrissey also contributed to this report.

 
Cindy Carcamo covers immigration issues for the Los Angeles Times. Previously, she was Arizona bureau chief and a national correspondent for The Times, focusing on border and immigration issues in the Southwest. A Los Angeles native, she has reported in Argentina and Mexico during her time as an Inter American Press Assn. scholar and as a reporter for the Orange County Register. She’s also reported from Guatemala and Honduras where her coverage was part of a team Overseas Press Club Award. She is also the recipient of the French-American Foundation’s 2012 Immigration Journalism Award and was a finalist for the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Journalism and 2011 Livingston Award.
 
Molly O’Toole is an immigration reporter based in the Los Angeles Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau.
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