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Database on journalists, activists and immigration attorneys stirs outrage and calls for investigation

Staff Sgt. William McDonald, 92nd Civil Engineer Squadron customer service representative, works on reports June 28, 2017, at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. (Airman 1st Class Ryan Lackey/U.S. Air Force)

Reports that the U.S. government kept a database on journalists, activists and immigration attorneys during an investigation into last year’s migrant caravan has stirred outrage among civil rights groups, drawn concern from lawmakers and prompted more people to come forward with additional allegations of being detained by U.S. immigration authorities.

Brendon Tucker, 24, a volunteer from Brownsville, Texas, said he and other volunteers who had been working with the migrant caravan in Tijuana were stopped at gunpoint by Customs and Border Protection agents in the first days of 2019.

Tucker said he was returning with activist Evan Duke from a migrant shelter in Tijuana to San Diego through the San Ysidro Port of Entry when CBP directed their vehicle to secondary inspection.

“They pointed guns at me. They used a bullhorn to call me out of the car,” Tucker said. “They tried to take my phone. They tried to take Evan’s phone. And all we were doing was bringing supplies to the migrants in Tijuana.”

Undeterred by the initial encounter, Tucker said he and Duke picked up more supplies in San Ysidro, crossed the border again that same day and dropped them off at migrant shelters in Tijuana.

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When they returned, they were again held at gunpoint by CBP officers and this time detained and questioned for six hours, Tucker said.

Tucker said he suspected he was being targeted or investigated since January because each time he goes through a border checkpoint, he faces additional screening and questioning.

“I didn’t see it coming, but I can’t say I’m surprised,” he said.

Tucker and Duke said they are not sure whether they are in a database revealed in leaked documents published Wednesday by NBC7. The documents indicate that the U.S. government has kept dossiers on dozens of activists, advocates, attorneys, and journalists it is investigating in relation to the migrant caravan that arrived in Tijuana last November.

“I’m dying to find out if I’m on that list,” said Tucker, who described himself as a solidarity worker not associated with any particular organization. Tucker said he was transporting clothing, food and medicine to various migrant shelters in Tijuana.

Among those included in the Homeland Security documents leaked to NBC7 are 10 journalists, seven U.S. citizens, an American attorney and 47 people from Central America. Some of the people in the group were denied entry into Mexico and had their passports flagged.

The information has outraged civil liberties and media groups, which called tracking, detaining and questioning journalists a violation of free speech rights. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, said it plans to meet with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to express concerns about this practice.

“If our First Amendment means anything, it’s that the government cannot retaliate against journalists based on the content of their reporting,” said Gabe Rottman, director of the Reporters Committee’s Technology and Press Freedom Project.

CBP released a statement Thursday from Andrew Meehan, the assistant commissioner of public affairs, who said the agency’s collection of information followed assaults on Border Patrol agents in November and January.

A group of about 150 migrants attempted to breach the south side of a San Diego border fence on New Year’s Day, which resulted in U.S. officials firing tear gas. Officials said some migrants had thrown rocks at them, an account that some witnesses disputed.

The collection of information after such an incident is a “standard law enforcement practice,” CBP said, stressing that journalists are not targeted based on their occupation or their reporting. Further, they said, the agency has “policies in place that prohibit discrimination against arriving travelers and has specific provisions regarding encounters with journalists.”

CBP declined to immediately provide a copy of those specific provisions.

The CBP statement also said that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, in conjunction with CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility, “initiated an inquiry in February” in order to “ensure that all appropriate policies and practices were followed.”

A spokeswoman said she was looking into the incident involving Tucker and Duke.

On Thursday Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation & Operations, sent a letter to CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan expressing concern and “requesting information about this troubling practice, which raises serious legal and constitutional questions,” according to a statement.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government, which denied entry to some of the people in the database, said it didn’t do “illegal surveillance” and would ask the U.S. to clarify any possible cases of “illegal spying.”

“Mexico welcomes all foreign visitors who, obeying immigration laws, carry out in our territory tourism or professional activities,” according to a joint statement from the Foreign Relations Department and the Department of Security and Citizen Protection.

Freelance photojournalist and U.S. citizen Kitra Cahana said that being detained, questioned and denied entry into Mexico has impacted her work and had a chilling effect on her colleagues.

“I have been denied entry into Mexico twice now, and unable to continue my reporting,” said Cahana, who first told the Times about her experiences last month. “But beyond my own situation, it has created a climate of fear for many of my colleagues who are thinking twice right now about covering the border and migration.”

Both Cahana and Tucker were present during the Jan. 1 incident at the U.S.-Mexico border during which border agents deployed tear gas on migrants attempting to breech a border fence.

CBP said after that clash the agency “identified individuals who may have information relating to the instigators and/or organizers of these attacks.”

Tucker said during his second stop by CBP a few days after the Jan. 1 incident, agents confiscated his video camcorder and his friend’s phone. He said they never returned the items.

“At the end of the day, they just don’t like what we’re doing,” Tucker said. “So, they say ‘We’re going to pull you in secondary. We’re going to tear up your car.’ It sucks.”

“I know I didn’t do anything illegal to be put on any list,” he added.

Duke confirmed Tucker’s account of what happened at the vehicle checkpoint.

“Tucker said to me: ‘You have rifles aimed at your head right now and so do I,’” said Duke, describing the tense moments when CBP ordered them to exit their vehicle.

“They told (Tucker) to put his hands outside of the window, and I did too and they started yelling ‘Just the driver!” and I thought ‘Oh, God, don’t kill me,’” Duke said.

Based on questions investigators asked him, Duke said he believes it’s possible that investigators are acting upon information provided to law enforcement by right-wing conspiracy groups. He said a North Dakota radio talk-show host bragged on the air about reporting him and his colleagues to law enforcement.

Duke said all of the information he was asked by investigators at the border was readily available through open sources.

“They asked me if I was at Standing Rock. Yeah, I was at Standing Rock. They asked me if I was at the (presidential) inauguration. I said ‘I’m pretty sure you know that because it’s on my Facebook,’” Duke said.

Hugo Castro, a human rights activist with Border Angels, a nonprofit advocacy group, whose name appears among those allegedly tracked by the government, said interrogations at the border have also caused some in his circle to hesitate about providing aid to migrants.

“I think they are trying to stop people from helping caravan members or asylum seekers or anyone providing any help for migrants,” Castro said. “And in a way, they are succeeding, because many of our colleagues are very worried and trying to avoid crossing the border.”

Staff Writer Kate Morrissey contributed to this report

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© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.