ACLU Sues Three Government Agencies for Targeting Immigration Activists

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California has filed a lawsuit against three government agencies for allegedly surveilling and detaining immigrant activists at the border.

The complaint, filed by the organization in the US District Court for the Central District of California on July 23, states that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) targeted activists Erika Da Cruz Pinheiro, Nora Elizabeth Phillips, and Nathaniel Garrett Dennison for “detention and interrogation” through a “secret investigative program designed to monitor these humanitarian workers... and impede their ability to travel.”

“It’s terrifying,” Pinheiro, an attorney with the immigrant rights’ organization Al Otro Lado, told The Guardian. “This administration has taken a lot of steps to criminalize US citizens who stand in opposition to their policies… I’m just trying to do my job.”

The complaint states that the government agencies monitoring of the activists “is both immoral and illegal."

“Plaintiffs have been singled out and targeted solely because of their protected speech and association, including their provision of legal counsel to asylum seekers, their association with others providing humanitarian aid, and the assistance they provided to clients seeking to redress or to express themselves publicly,” the complaint states.

“In addition, the government’s collection and retention of information about Plaintiffs’ protected work violates the First Amendment and the Privacy Act, and chills their ability to continue their important work."

In March, NBC7 San Diego obtained documents detailing how the US government created a secret database of journalists and activists. Pinheiro, Al Otro Lado co-founder Nora Phillips, and documentary film-maker Nathaniel Dennison were all stopped at the border, interrogated, and detained since the creation of the database. "The disclosure of the secret program spurred outrage from civil society organizations, prompted members of Congress to call for an inquiry into the agencies' actions, and led Customs and Border Protection's Inspector General to initiate its own investigation into surveillance," the lawsuit said.

Phillips told the ACLU in a statement that she is just trying to do her job. "Not only is this administration going after refugees and migrants, it's going after the helpers too," Phillips said. "I'm just trying to do my job."

The lawsuit asks the court to order the government agencies to cease the program’s spying on the plaintiffs and to erase any information obtained through the government program that originated from illegal surveillance. Mohammad Tasjar, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California said in a statement that the government program is being used to “punish lawyers and activists.”

"To the Trump administration, compassion is a crime," Tajsar said in a statement. "Not content to shut the country's doors to vulnerable families seeking refuge, the government launched a secret spying program to punish lawyers and activists who dared to provide for the basic welfare of migrants wanting a better life for themselves and their loved ones."

Earlier this month, the ACLU of Southern California filed a petition on behalf of an activist who was arrested in California two days after he read a poem at a public forum critiquing the Trump administration’s immigration policies. On May 15, Jose Omar Bello Reyes, 22, read his poem “Dear America” at a public forum in Bakersfield California, the petition stated. In a video posted by the Bakersfield Californian, Bello can be seen reading his poem, which is about the interactions he has had with ICE. “I’m here to let you know, we want to feel safe — whether we’re Brown, Asian, or Black,” Bello read. “We don’t want your jobs. We don’t want your money. We’re here to work hard, pay taxes, and study.”

The petition states that Bello was arrested by ICE agents 36 hours after reading the poem. The 22-year-old previously was arrested by ICE agents in 2018 but was released in August after community organizations raised the funds for his $10,000 bond. Bello is currently being held at Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield on a $50,00 bond, the petition stated. The ACLU states that the 22-year-old’s arrest is a violation of his freedom of speech. “His arrest and detention violate the first amendment’s prohibition on government retaliation for protected speech and its related prohibition on viewpoint discrimination,” the petition read. “If left unaddressed, ICE’s actions will chill immigrant speakers from sharing criticisms of the agency at the very same time that its escalating aggression and [the] increasing use of detention are at the centre of public debate."

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.