The Trump administration kept a “secret database” of journalists and activists that were covering or raising awareness about one of the so-called migrant caravans last year, using the list to question and in some cases arrest people or have holds put on their passports, according to documents reviewed by NBC 7 San Diego.
Dozens of reporters, immigration lawyers, and activists were tracked by a database accessible to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies and the FBI, according to NBC San Diego’s report sourced from documents leaked by a Homeland Security official.
In some cases, their passports were flagged, and they were interrogated for hours by US officials when they crossed the southern border.
That list, dated January 2019 and titled “San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019 Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators, and Media,” reportedly is comprised of 59 individuals, many of whom are American citizens, according to NBC.
They include “ten journalists, seven of whom are U.S. citizens, a U.S. attorney, and 47 people from the U.S. and other countries, labeled as organizers, instigators or their roles ‘unknown,” NBC reports. The list shows different symbols based on who was questioned or arrested, with green and red “X” marks used to identify them, NBC reported. The documents also show individuals’ photos, sometimes from their passports, their date of birth, home country, and their alleged ties to the immigrant caravan.
NBC News reported that at least 21 individuals in the database were arrested or questioned.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials didn’t dispute the database, telling NBC News it was made up of people who were allegedly present during a violent incident that took place at the border in November and remains under investigation.
A spokesperson for CBP said “criminal events” such as those “involving assaults on law enforcement and a risk to public safety” are routinely monitored by authorities.
“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 spokesperson said.
“These activities could result in a more thorough review of those seeking entrance into our country,” the spokesperson added. 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’s statement didn’t address specifics of why journalists would be on the list to have their passports flagged.
Bing Guan, a freelance journalist and student at the International Center of Photography, said he and a colleague were stopped by U.S. agents while returning from Tijuana in December.
US News notes: “A plainclothes agent who didn’t identify his agency showed Guan a multi-page document with dozens of photos and asked him to identify people in the images. The agent then asked Guan to show him the photos he had taken in Tijuana. Guan said the report of the dossiers confirmed the long-held suspicions he and other journalists had.”
“It’s sort of a weird combination of paranoia and pride,” Guan said. “Paranoia because our own government is conducting these intelligence gathering tactics and these patterns of harassment in order to deter journalists from doing their jobs, but also a little bit of pride because I feel like I’m on the right track,” Guan said.
“Monitoring journalists and immigration advocates is outrageous — and if based on their political opinions or legitimate human rights-related activities, as we suspect, it is unlawful,” said Ashley Houghton, tactical campaigns manager for Amnesty International.
The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Congress to investigate what it called a “disturbing pattern of activity,” and representatives from the organization plan to meet with Customs and Border Protection officials to discuss the situation.