WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general is investigating whether immigration officials violated policies when they created a secret list of journalists, attorneys, and activists to be stopped at the southern border for questioning — as Democratic members of Congress demanded answers.
"We are writing to express our great concern about a US Customs and Border Protection list the agency is using to stop, detain, question, and search 59 reporters, attorneys, and advocates, most of whom are US citizens, at the southern border," the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, wrote in a letter to the agency's commissioner on Thursday.
"Further, we are requesting information about this troubling practice, which raises serious legal and constitutional questions," Thompson added, demanding a copy of the list, an explanation of why the individuals were included, any copies of "dossiers" compiled, and what actions were taken against them.
On Wednesday, NBC's San Diego affiliate, which first reported on the list, said it may have been created in response to media coverage about the caravan of immigrants that traveled to the border from Central America at the end of 2018.
Included in the list were at least one attorney, 10 journalists — including one who did freelance work for BuzzFeed News — and 47 people designated as "organizers" or "instigators." Passport photos and notes about the individuals, such as whether they'd been arrested or interviewed, were also kept.
Democrats in Congress on Thursday blasted US immigration officials for the list, with one calling the revelations "McCarthyism."
"This immigrant activist hit list is an alarming and intimidating tactic by CBP," Florida Rep. Darren Soto, a member of the Hispanic Caucus, told BuzzFeed News. "It is McCarthyism at its best."
Andrew Meehan, CBP's assistant commissioner of public affairs, said Thursday that the list was created after "assaults against Border Patrol Agents" in November and January. He said it "identified individuals who may have information relating to the instigators and/or organizers of these attacks."
"Efforts to gather this type of information are a standard law enforcement practice," Meehan said. "CBP does not target journalists for inspection based on their occupation or their reporting. CBP has policies in place that prohibit discrimination against arriving travelers and has specific provisions regarding encounters with journalists."
He said that the DHS investigation was initiated in February.
Two reporters on the list told BuzzFeed News they were stopped by Mexican authorities while covering the caravan and had their passports photographed. Days later, US Border Patrol agents detained them and asked them to identify photos of people in the caravan.
Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, demanded answers as to why the list was created.
“Congress needs answers on who exactly was part of this list, why it was used, and under what circumstances," Castro told BuzzFeed News. "This type of assault on press freedom and democracy is something we’d expect in dictatorships — not the United States of America.”
Soto questioned whether the practice might be illegal and called for scrutiny.
"Congress must investigate the real reason behind its creation and even question its legality," Soto said. "Rather than targeting American lawyers, reporters, and activists, our government should be supporting and relying on them for solutions at our southern border.”
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal called the practice "anti-Democratic."
"I think there ought to be bipartisan rebellion and repugnance at this kind of really anti-Democratic behavior," he said.
And Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi said he thinks CBP officials should be brought before Congress.
"This is unacceptable. This is completely unacceptable, and I think this is exactly why we need oversight of this administration," he said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and a spokesperson for ICE referred questions to Border Patrol.