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Journalists, Lawyers & Activists Targeted in Sweeping U.S. Intelligence Gathering Effort on Border

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Newly revealed documents show the U.S. government created a secret database of activists and journalists who were documenting the Trump administration’s efforts to thwart a caravan of migrants hoping to win asylum in the U.S. An investigation from San Diego’s NBC 7 revealed the list was shared among Homeland Security Investigations, ICE, Customs and Border Protection and the FBI. It included the names of 10 journalists—seven of whom are U.S. citizens—along with nearly four dozen others listed as “organizers” or “instigators.” House Democrats are now calling for the full disclosure of the government’s secret list. We speak with one of the activists targeted by the government, Nicole Ramos, director of Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project. The project works with asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. We also speak with Ryan Devereaux, staff reporter at The Intercept. In early February, he wrote an article titled “Journalists, Lawyers, and Activists Working on the Border Face Coordinated Harassment from U.S. and Mexican Authorities.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Newly revealed documents show the U.S. government created a secret database of activists and journalists who were documenting the Trump administration’s efforts to thwart a caravan of migrants hoping to win asylum in the U.S. An investigation from San Diego’s NBC 7 revealed the list was shared among Homeland Security Investigations, ICE, Customs and Border Protection and the FBI. It included the names of 10 journalists—seven of whom were U.S. citizens—along with nearly four dozen others listed as organizers or instigators. Some of the journalists and at least one immigration lawyer had alerts placed on their passports that prevented them from entering Mexico. Others on the list reported they were stopped by Mexican police or were subjected to lengthy interviews and searches when re-entering the U.S. House Democrats are now calling for the full disclosure of the government’s secret list.

On Thursday, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom of California said it was ironic the government knew more about journalists and attorneys than it did about the missing migrant children it had detained.

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM: I mean, the irony of that shouldn’t be lost on anyone, that we have better data collection against journalists than we do children and parents. … We found out 471 parents have been removed from their children, and yet we have deep data collection on all of you. That’s America in 2019.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Ryan Devereaux, staff reporter at The Intercept, where he covers immigration enforcement, the drug war and national security. In early February, he wrote an article headlined “Journalists, Lawyers, and Activists Working on the Border Face Coordinated Harassment from U.S. and Mexican Authorities.”

And in Tijuana, Mexico, we’re joined by Nicole Ramos, who is director of the Border Rights Project of Al Otro Lado, a project that works with asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. The group also conducts human rights monitoring on the U.S.-Mexico border. Ramos is one of the people on the government’s secret list. NBC 7 reports her dossier includes personal details including specific information about the car she drives, her mother’s name, and her work and travel history.

Ryan Devereaux and Nicole Ramos, welcome to Democracy Now! Ryan, I’m going to begin with you. Talk about what you uncovered and the significance of this list.

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Right. So, in early February, we published a report revealing a sweeping government intelligence gathering operation involving U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, targeting journalists, lawyers and advocates working in the border area around Tijuana and San Diego, folks who had been in contact with the migrant caravan. Our reporting showed that this uptick in scrutiny picked up around December and January, in conjunction with a couple of high-profile events in the area involving CBP tear-gassing groups of migrants.

What we discovered was that Mexican municipal police were sort of going around near the wall, approaching photojournalists, photographing their passports. In one case, a group of journalists who were approached by Mexican law enforcement asked who the Mexicans were taking photos for, and they said, “For the Americans.”

The consequences of this intelligence gathering operation were that a number of journalists were subjected to secondary screening when they attempted to go back into the United States. They were asked questions about activists working near the border. Phones were confiscated. Electronics were searched.

Advocates, also, with migrant organizations were taken into custody, pumped for information, as well. In one case, a volunteer I spoke to was handcuffed to a steel bench for five hours. All of the questioning that was described to us points to a U.S. government interest in targeting activists involved in the migrant caravans making their way north to the United States, that have obviously inflamed the outrage of President Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: NBC San Diego followed up on your reporting and found more and more examples of the surveillance. What else did they find?

RYAN DEVEREAUX: That’s correct. The NBC News report, in sort of an extraordinary fashion, confirmed what we had reported in February, laying out how the government actually put this stuff in writing, made lists of so-called instigators—organizers, journalists, activists. And it’s completely consistent with what we found last month. I spoke to folks who were presented sort of sheets of paper with photographs of activists, asked who they know. The government clearly went to some pretty significant lengths here to gather information on people who had a nexus to the caravans.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, Customs and Border Protection told San Diego’s NBC 7 the secret list was a necessary response to assaults against Border Patrol agents that took place last November and in January. The agency’s assistant commissioner of public affairs, Andrew Meehan, said the agency, quote, “identified individuals who may have information relating to the instigators and/or organizers of these attacks.” Meehan added, “Efforts to gather this type of information are a standard law enforcement practice.” Meehan also said, quote, ”CBP does not target journalists for inspection based on their occupation or their reporting.” Ryan Devereaux?

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Well, a few things about that. A number of the folks who were targeted in this operation weren’t present at the events that are referred to in that statement. Some of the interrogations that were described to me began months earlier, and a number of folks weren’t even there.

Second, in order for the government to take a hard look at a journalist’s work, they have to meet a certain sort of bar, a higher threshold. Those sorts of protections exist for First Amendment reasons. What seems to have happened here, in the words of the ACLU, is that the authorities on the border sort of did an end-around DOJ restrictions on how they can approach journalists about events that they witnessed, information that they’ve gathered. What we’re seeing here seems to be a real effort to circumvent those restrictions.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicole Ramos, if you can talk about what it means to be on this list, how you discovered you were on it, and what’s happened to you since?

NICOLE RAMOS: What it means to be on this list is that you are an individual who has either challenged U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy and violations of asylum seekers’ rights, or you have somehow documented that as a journalist or borne witness to it as an activist or a member of the clergy.

With respect to the impact of the list on myself and my co-directors, on January 10th, my Global Entry pass was confiscated and revoked when I entered the United States from Mexico. I have made this crossing dozens of times using my Global Entry pass, which allows me to have an expedited crossing, cutting my travel time from 20 minutes, what could potentially be three hours. My last crossing prior to it being confiscated was on January 7th. The cover page of this dossier is January 9th. And my Global Entry was revoked on January 10th.

Since our inclusion in this dossier, my co-directors, Erika Pinheiro and Nora Phillips, were denied entry into Mexico. They enter for different reasons, for work and for travel, and they were subsequently removed from Mexico. Ironically, in the case of my co-director Erika Pinheiro, she, while working on the family separation cases, as we are one of the only legal providers for parents who were deported from the border without their children, was separated from her own Mexican citizen child because of the U.S. government alert placed on her passport.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what has the government said to you about why they’re doing this? You’re a U.S. citizen?

NICOLE RAMOS: The government has not provided any reason other than a canned response, which includes the variety of reasons one might not qualify for Global Entry, including the fact that one is under investigation for a violation of U.S. immigration or U.S. criminal law. That indicated to me that I was under some kind of investigation, but they would neither confirm nor deny whether that was true. We’ve attempted to obtain more information about the alerts placed on our passports, through the discovery process of our litigation, Al Otro Lado v. Nielsen; however, we have not been able to obtain further information through that process.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a U.S. citizen?

NICOLE RAMOS: Yes, I am a U.S. citizen.

AMY GOODMAN: How has this inhibited your work, prevented you from doing your work? And explain what Al Otro Lado is.

NICOLE RAMOS: Al Otro Lado is a binational legal services organization that serves refugees and deportees in the Tijuana border region, as well as undocumented individuals in Los Angeles County. We provide Know Your Rights training and legal orientation to asylum seekers who are trapped in Tijuana by the United States government’s illegal policies of preventing them from accessing the port of entry.

And we are a thorn in the U.S. government’s side. We are the main litigant in Al Otro Lado v. Nielsen, which challenges CBP’s turning away of asylum seekers at the port of entry and the creation of an illegal wait list, which it operates in collaboration with the Mexican government. We have documented hundreds of asylum seekers whose rights have been violated by this policy, and we continue to document to this day, as well as arm asylum seekers with information about what their rights are in the system and how the U.S. government will seek to violate those rights, as well as strategies that they can use to protect themselves when interacting with U.S. officials.

We are frequently defamed by U.S. officials after asylum seekers enter the port of entry with our materials. They tell asylum seekers that we are fake attorneys, that we are frauds, that we will charge them, that we are troublemakers, that they have no rights, and they should pay no attention to anything that we say. And they do this because every time that we document violations, we bring this to the public’s light, we bring this to the light of the legislator. And frankly, they don’t like being held accountable for these violations. And it’s ironic that the U.S. government’s largest law enforcement agency has such a terrible record of following its own federal law.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Nicole, in Congress, there was a highly contentious hearing, with Democrats grilling the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. You say that she is guilty of perjury. Why?

NICOLE RAMOS: The parents that were deported without their children, of which our organization has worked intensely on these cases, with Erika Pinheiro leading that effort, we have documented, in every single case, of every single family that we’ve interviewed, coercion, physical abuse and lies that were told to these parents in order to get them to sign for their own removal. They were told that their children would be on the planes with them or would be in a separate children’s plane. She perjured herself. And so, Secretary Nielsen should not only be investigated for perjury, but she should be thankful that the United States does not submit to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, because she is guilty of genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that further. Very serious charges, to say the least.

NICOLE RAMOS: The forcible separation of children from their parents is an act of genocide. This was a very well-planned, orchestrated policy, designed to break the spirit of asylum seekers, so that they would stop coming to our border seeking protection. This was not a policy designed to deter “illegal migration,” because many of the families that were separated presented themselves at U.S. ports of entry in accordance with U.S. law. This was a policy designed to prevent people from accessing their legal right. And the forcible separation of families is an act of genocide. And it is reminiscent of the forcible separation of Native American children from their families when they were placed in boarding schools, which is also an act of genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicole Ramos, on Friday, a federal judge, Judge Sabraw, expanded a class-action lawsuit to include thousands more migrant families separated at the border, when the—before the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy was announced in 2018. Your response on the significance of this?

NICOLE RAMOS: I personally think that that class should be expanded. We have documented separation of children from their parents by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers since at least May of 2017.

Further, I would like to know what is going to be the Department of Homeland Security’s response for the parents that currently remain detained and separated from their children. Just two weeks ago, Al Otro Lado presented 29 parents that had been forcibly separated from their children and deported back to Central America. They re-presented themselves to U.S. immigration authorities at the Calexico port of entry with documentation showing they had been forcibly separated, and showing that they had true asylum claims that deserve to be heard by a judge. Many of those parents are now detained in ICE detention centers, still not reunited with their families, subjected to horrific conditions, and, during their processing by CBP and by ICE, have been subjected to humiliation, more verbal coercion and derision, being told that they are liars. This is not acceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Devereaux, on the story, the headline of your story is “Journalists, Lawyers, and Activists Working on the Border Face Coordinated Harassment from U.S. and Mexican Authorities.” Mexico’s foreign relations office released a statement saying, “The government of Mexico disapproves of all acts of illegal espionage against any person, domestic or foreign. The Mexican government does not conduct illegal surveillance on anyone, for any type or category of activity.” Mexico’s foreign relations office also said it will ask the U.S. government to, quote, “clarify any possible cases of illegal spying.”

When we were on the border and we went over to the Mexico side and were coming back, Mexican authorities came up with us, and one of the guys said, “I just want to do a selfie with you. I want to do a selfie with you.” But this kind of documentation, we understood, was about getting photographs.

RYAN DEVEREAUX: It’s interesting that the Mexican government raised the specter of illegal espionage in the context of these revelations, because that wasn’t what I was asking them about. But it’s worth remembering that the Mexican government, Mexican law enforcement in the past has been shown to use extreme measures and techniques to target advocates. Look back at the case of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, the college. Their attorneys were targeted by a powerful software that Mexican law enforcement used to get into their phones. We know that Mexican law enforcement is willing to push the envelope. So that raises serious questions about what sort of restrictions they’re placing on their own officers as they’re working in conjunction with the U.S. government. And that’s something that lawmakers should be taking a hard look at.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Ryan Devereaux broke this story, reporter for The Intercept. We’ll link to your reporting. And, Nicole Ramos, thanks so much for joining us from Tijuana, Mexico. Al Otro Lado is her group, targeted for doing her job. We want to thank you for being with us, as well.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, will join us from Brazil to talk about a number of issues, from Venezuela to the jailing of Chelsea Manning. Stay with us.

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