Immigration journalists and activists’ suspicions were confirmed this week when San Diego local news station NBC 7 obtained leaked documents that showed the U.S. government was tracking media during the migrant caravan news cycle last year.
In the fall of 2018, the caravan, made up roughly 5,000 migrants, made national headlines and was a campaign rallying cry for President Donald Trump and Republicans before the midterm elections.
Some journalists and activists, many of whom are American citizens, raised concerns and were suspicious of how border agents treated them.
The documents released by NBC 7 Wednesday show that the CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Department of Homeland Security, and local FBI agents used a secret database to track activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the caravan and often put alerts on their passports.
One journalist’s story
Freelance photojournalist Ariana Drehsler crossed the border dozens of times covering the caravan news without issue but was suddenly brought in for questioning in December. She described her experience to NBC 7:
“Two people in plainclothes came down and took me to another room. They questioned me in a small room, asking me questions about the shelter, what was I seeing there, who was I working for.”
Dreshner was brought in for questioning two more times in January. She wondered if her equipment was looked through and was told an alert was placed on her passport.
“They asked about the new caravan and if word had gotten out about how difficult it is to seek asylum in the U.S.”
The documents revealed that Dreshner was one of the journalists placed in the secret database, her photo appearing on one of the documents with a green “X” over her face, indicating she had been questioned.
In total, ten journalists were monitored through the database, seven of them are American citizens. Dozens of other attorneys and activists were also tracked.
The American Civil Liberties Union responded to the report Wednesday night, calling the tracking “an outrageous violation of the First Amendment.”
This is an outrageous violation of the First Amendment.
The government can’t use the pretext of the border to target activists critical of its policies, lawyers providing legal representation, or journalists simply doing their jobs.
We‘re exploring all options in response. https://t.co/O9yZjwrYDi
— ACLU (@ACLU) March 7, 2019
Senior staff attorney Mitra Ebadolahi with the ACLU of San Diego’s Border Litigation Project gave an additional statement to NBC 7:
“For years, the U.S. government has used the pretext of ‘border security’ to trample on Americans’ constitutional rights. This most recent example is just the latest in a steady stream of CBP abuse of authority, and once again underscores the dire need for meaningful agency oversight and accountability.”
A spokeswoman from CBP originally provided a general response to the report, not mentioning specifically why journalists and activists were targeted.
“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 spokeswoman said in a statement.
The CBP told NBC News after the report was published that the database included people who were present during violence that broke out on the border in November.
“They have no right”
A former DHS official told NBC News that it is not the department’s policy to track individuals based on their occupation.
“While it is true that CBP has broad authority to interview and search anyone crossing the border, if there is no reasonable suspicion that you are involved in criminal activity, then they have no right to detain you,” she said.