US and Mexico Track Journalists and Immigration Advocates through Secret Database

The US government has reportedly created a database that contains information on social media influencers, journalists, and immigration advocates linked to the migrant caravan. Some allege they have become the target of stringent inspections by border officials.

According to a special investigation by NBC 7 San Diego, photojournalists who joined the 5,000-strong caravan from Central America said they felt that the government was closely monitoring them, but had no way to prove it. Other immigration activists worked with the caravan that reached the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego last November.

The investigation corroborated their fears, however. Agents from Customs and Border Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations and the US Border Patrol collected names in a secret database. Some of them had alerts placed on passports, thus forbidding photojournalists and an attorney from entering Mexico.

The database included 10 journalists—seven of whom are American citizens—a US attorney, and 48 individuals from the US and other countries, NBC 7 noted. They were labeled as “instigators,” “organizers,” or have “unknown” roles. Advocates from organizations such as “Border Angels” and “Pueblo Sin Fronteras” were also added into the database.

The documents, entitled “San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019, Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators and Media” dates back to January 9, and is a joint effort between US and Mexican authorities. The documents collected by NBC 7 showed photos of each target, their social media accounts, the person’s date of birth, and their alleged role in the migrant caravan. “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,” said Nicole Ramos, refugee director and attorney of Tijuana-based Al Otro Lado law center. Personal information about Ramos’ car, mother’s name, and her work and travel history appeared on the database.

Although Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is allowed to pull anyone into secondary screenings, the question of whether this practice is legal looms large. In the wake of the investigation, the CBP said in a statement to NBC 7 that “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,” adding that “CBP and our law enforcement partners evaluate these incidents, follow all leads garnered from information collected, conduct interviews and investigations, in preparation for, and often to prevent future incidents that could cause further harm to the public, our agents, and our economy.”

Nora Benavidez, director of US Free Expression Programs at New York-based PEN America, said in a statement on Thursday that “the existence of a US government database monitoring legal comings and goings of human rights advocates and journalists is a shocking and unwarranted violation of their First Amendment rights.” Benavidez later added, “The mere speculation that the US government was collaborating with the Mexican government to detain journalists and lawyers was troubling enough. The conclusive reporting that this database actually exists, and that the government justifies its monitoring of these advocates as routine, is a shameful violation of press freedom and a threat to our most basic constitutional rights.”

Other organizations like ACLU expressed concern about the government’s alleged tactics to trace journalist and individuals working at the border. "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," Mitra Ebadolahi, a senior staff lawyer with ACLU of San Diego’s Border Litigation Project, said in a statement.


About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and U.S. politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.