Report: Government kept tabs on journalists, ‘instigators’
Thursday, March 7
SAN DIEGO (AP) — The U.S. government ran an operation to screen journalists, activists and others while investigating last year’s migrant caravan from Mexico, a San Diego TV station reported Wednesday, citing leaked documents.
Dossiers that included photos from their passports or social media accounts, date of birth and other details were kept in a database and some freelance journalists had alerts placed on their passports and were flagged for secondary screenings at customs points, the station KNSD-TV said.
One freelance photojournalist was denied entry to Mexico for reasons that were never stated, the station reported.
The documents, in the form of dossiers and screenshots, were provided to NBC 7 Investigates by a Homeland Security source on the condition of anonymity, the station reported. Those listed as warranting secondary screening included 10 journalists — seven of them U.S. citizens — a U.S. attorney and 47 people from various countries labeled as organizers, instigators or “unknown,” the station said.
The intelligence-gathering efforts were done under the umbrella of “Operation Secure Line,” which was designed to monitor the caravan of thousands of people who began making their way north from Central America late last year to seek asylum in the United States, the source told the TV station.
A Customs and Border Protection statement sent to The Associated Press on Wednesday said the extra security followed a breach of a border wall in San Diego on Nov. 25 in a violent confrontation between caravan members and border agents. The confrontation closed the nation’s busiest border crossing for five hours on Thanksgiving weekend.
Such “criminal events…involving assaults on law enforcement and a risk to public safety, are routinely monitored and investigated by authorities,” the statement said.
“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 didn’t address specifics of why journalists would be on the list to have their passports flagged.
The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the operation.
“This is an outrageous violation of the First Amendment,” attorney Esha Bhandari said. “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.”
The documents, dated Jan. 9, are titled “San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019, Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators and Media.” The source said the material was used by agents from the CBP and other agencies, including some San Diego FBI agents.
Two freelance photojournalists confirmed to the station that the information in their dossiers was accurate. Both were pulled in for secondary questioning at border crossings and one, Kitra Cahana, eventually was stopped in Mexico, denied entry and had to fly back to the U.S. They were not told why they were targeted.
One dossier was on Nicole Ramos, the refugee director and attorney for Al Otro Lado, a law center for migrants and refugees in Tijuana, Mexico. It included details such as the kind of car she drives and her mother’s name, KNSD-TV reported.
“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 the station by email.
Judge: Census citizenship question is a threat to democracy
By SUDHIN THANAWALA
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census “threatens the very foundation of our democratic system” because it would cause a significant undercount of immigrants and Latinos that could distort the distribution of congressional seats, a U.S. judge said Wednesday.
Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco said the commerce secretary’s decision to add the question was arbitrary and capricious and would violate a constitutional requirement that the census accurately count the U.S. population.
“The record in this case has clearly established that including the citizenship question on the 2020 census is fundamentally counterproductive to the goal of obtaining accurate citizenship data about the public,” Seeborg said.
He became the second judge to declare the move illegal, so the effect of his decision is limited. A federal judge in New York had previously blocked the administration from adding the question to the population count that occurs every 10 years, and the U.S. Supreme Court last month agreed to review that decision.
The ruling in California, however, differed from the January decision by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in a significant way. Furman also found the question violated administrative requirements, but he rejected an argument that it violated the Constitution.
Seeborg found a violation of the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause, which could present another issue for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider.
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
The ruling came as The Associated Press reported that the Census Bureau is quietly seeking comprehensive information about the legal status of millions of immigrants.
Under a proposed plan, the Department of Homeland Security would provide the Census Bureau with a broad swath of personal data about noncitizens, including their immigration status, raising concerns among privacy and civil rights activists.
Seeborg ruled in lawsuits by California and several cities in the state that asserted the citizenship question was politically motivated and should be kept off the census.
“Justice has prevailed for each and every Californian who should raise their hands to be counted in the 2020 census without being discouraged by a citizenship question,” state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.
California argued that the question would cost it a substantial amount of money and at least one congressional seat by reducing the percentage of Latinos and immigrants who respond to the survey. It said that would lead to an undercount in the state, which has a substantial number of people from both groups.
Census numbers are used to determine states’ distribution of congressional seats and billions of dollars in federal funding.
The Justice Department had argued that census officials take steps such as making in-person follow-up visits to get an accurate count. Households that skip the citizenship question but otherwise fill out a substantial portion of the questionnaire would still be counted, Justice Department attorneys said in court documents.
The Commerce Department announced the addition of a citizenship question a year ago, saying the Justice Department asked for it and it would improve enforcement of a 1965 law meant to protect minority voting rights.
The move sparked an outcry from Democrats, who said it would disproportionately affect states favoring their party. People were last asked whether they were U.S. citizens in the 1950 census.
Seeborg rejected the claim that the citizenship question stemmed from a request by the Justice Department, calling that a “pretext” for the real reason to add it.
He cited an email from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to a Commerce Department official nearly a year before the question was announced, in which Ross said he was “mystified” why nothing had been done in response to his “months old request that we include the citizenship question.”
“What ensued was a cynical search to find some reason, any reason, or an agency request to justify that preordained result,” the judge said.
Guidelines ask agents to target Spanish speakers at border
By ELLIOT SPAGAT
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Border agents have been told to explicitly target Spanish speakers and migrants from Latin America in carrying out a Trump administration program requiring asylum seekers wait in Mexico, according to memos obtained by The Associated Press that reveal some inner workings of a top government priority to address the burgeoning number of Central Americans arriving in the country.
The Trump administration launched the program in late January in what marks a potentially seismic shift on how the U.S. handles the cases of immigrants seeking asylum and fleeing persecution in their homeland. The program initially applied only to those who turned themselves in at official border crossings, but a memo from a division chief of the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector says it expanded Friday to include people who cross the border illegally.
The guidance includes instruction about various groups of immigrants who are not to be sent back to Mexico and instead go through the traditional asylum process in the U.S. immigration court system. They include pregnant women, LGBT migrants and people suffering medical issues. Authorities said previously that Mexican asylum seekers are excluded, as are children traveling alone.
U.S. officials must check if the asylum seeker has any felony convictions and notify Mexico at least 12 hours before they are returned. Those who cross illegally must have come as single adults, though the administration is in talks with the Mexican government to include families.
The program is being implemented as border arrests soared in February to a 12-year-high and more than half of those stopped arrived as families, many of them asylum seekers who generally turn themselves in instead of trying to elude capture. Guatemala and Honduras have replaced Mexico as the top countries, a remarkable shift from only a few years ago.
The instructions say Mexican officials insist that no more than 20 asylum seekers are returned each day from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico, on Monday through Saturday, underscoring challenges that the U.S. faces in trying to quickly ramp up one of its top border enforcement priorities and most significant changes to the U.S. immigration system of Donald Trump’s presidency. Authorities said Tuesday that more than 76,000 were stopped or apprehended at the Mexican border in February, more than double the same period last year.
A memo on Tuesday to top Border Patrol officials in San Diego said the agency is under “pressures to utilize this program as much as we can.”
Asylum-seeking families are typically released from U.S. custody immediately and allowed to settle with family or friends while their cases wind through immigration courts, which often takes years. Critics say that amounts to “catch-and-release,” which administration officials want to limit with the new Mexico program.
In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security described the program as “another tool available in the law” to respond to the record numbers of Central American migrants arriving at the border in recent months. The agency said the program is being carried out in a “thoughtful and deliberate manner” that protects vulnerable migrants and is done in collaboration with the Mexican government.
Two U.S. officials who were not authorized to discuss the internal guidance and spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed contents of the memos obtained by the AP.
Explicitly targeting Spanish speakers and Latin Americans had not been previously disclosed, though some critics said it was no surprise considering that recent arrest numbers are largely Central Americans.
Judy Rabinovitz, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the criteria “does smack of the same concerns we had in the Muslim ban,” referring to Trump’s ban on travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries, which was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court.
“We know they are trying to get at Central American asylum seekers but to see it written there so blatantly is so disturbing,” said Rabinovitz, whose organization was among those that sued the administration last month to block the policy.
Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has made the administration’s “Migrant Protection Protocols” a top priority, working for months with Mexican counterparts to seal the broad outlines of an agreement in November.
Testifying Wednesday in Congress, Nielsen said the U.S., working with Mexico, was exercising its authority to make people wait outside the country.
“All asylum seekers have the opportunity to present their case,” she said. “We’re not turning anybody around.”
The effort has gotten off to a modest start amid mixed signals from Mexican officials and been limited to San Diego. Tonatiuh Guillen, who heads Mexico’s immigration agency, told the AP that Mexico accepted 112 Central Americans during the first five weeks, including 25 children. Homeland Security has declined to release numbers.
A Homeland Security official, speaking to reporters Friday on a conference call on condition of anonymity, said the administration planned to grow the effort exponentially across the border, including to people who cross illegally between border crossings. The official declined to say when or where but said it was likely to be expanded in the next few weeks.
One memo obtained by the AP shows that it had been expanded on the same day.
Associated Press Writer Colleen Long contributed to this report from Washington.