A pastor, who was put on a watch list by US authorities following her work with immigrants who traveled to the border in a caravan, filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging her rights were violated.
Rev. Kaji Douša, senior pastor of the Park Avenue Christian Church in Manhattan, alleges that the government’s surveillance, detention, and interrogation as a result of being placed in the database following her ministry with immigrants and asylum-seekers violated her First Amendment rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“Under this type of system of surveillance nobody is safe, nobody gets to question, nobody gets to dissent,” Douša told BuzzFeed News. “I’m the nobody for now and that’s easy because I’m a black woman and we’re always the testing group, but I’m going to come out stronger because I have a great case.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.
Douša has been ministering with and helping immigrants for years, first as a pastor in a church 20 miles from the border in La Mesa, California. She continued working with the immigrant community from her Park Avenue church in New York and cochairs the New Sanctuary Coalition, a faith-based network advocating for immigrant rights.
Her work with New Sanctuary has involved accompanying immigrants who have immigration court dates and ICE check-in appointments. She’s also participated in immigration protests and prayer vigils.
More recently, during her time in Tijuana this year and in 2018, Douša prayed with immigrants, helped oversee 17 wedding ceremonies with other religious leaders, and counseled people who were in the caravan.
When she crossed back into San Diego on Jan. 2, Douša was sent to secondary inspection by a Customs and Border Protection agent. She was then held for several hours in a back room at the San Ysidro official border crossing and questioned about her work with immigrants.
A US officer asked Douša whether she encouraged asylum-seekers to lie on applications and if she was involved in illegal activity.
“They interrogated her about her motives. They interrogated her about her associations. They revealed to Pastor Douša that they had collected detailed information about her and her pastoral work. And they revoked the access she had previously been granted to expedited border crossing,” the complaint states.
Douša was not alone. Months after journalists, lawyers, and advocates who were involved in the caravans said they were being subjected to repeated questioning by border authorities, NBC 7 reported that the US had created a secret database where it collected information on several of them. The program was created as part of Operation Secure Line, the US government’s efforts to track and get information on the caravan that was traveling through Mexico toward the US last fall.
Douša said she is now constantly thinking about how to work with the people who count on her without making them vulnerable to also being surveilled.
“It chills my ability to respond to these people who I had already set up a pastoral relationship with and don’t have that with anybody else,” Douša said. “It’s irresponsible for me to have a conversation with someone about the most vulnerable things they are holding and carrying without warning them first that what they say might be used against them in a court of law or somewhere else. That is terrible and that’s the state we’re in.”
The complaint said the publicity she’s garnered over the years about ICE’s enforcement activities is what marked her for surveillance. During her questioning by US officers, it was revealed that they had “collected detailed information about her and her pastoral work,” the lawsuit said.
Anne Tindall, an attorney with Protect Democracy, a watchdog organization that represents Douša in her case, along with the law firm Arnold & Porter, said the US has retaliated against her client for speaking out against the government.
“This is patently unconstitutional and illegal targeting of a faith leader for exercising her right to pray for migrants,” Tindall told BuzzFeed News. “Knowing that she is targeted deters migrants from coming to her. When your association with a pastor may attract the attention of ICE and CBP and looking at your family being separated or deported you may be hesitant.”
The lawsuit is asking for a declaration from the court that targeting people for surveillance violates the First Amendment, as well as an injunction ordering the government to stop surveilling, detaining, and targeting Douša.