US immigration officials compiled a secret database containing information on dozens of reporters, attorneys, and activists to stop for questioning at the southern border and, in some cases, deny entry to Mexico.
The list, obtained by San Diego's NBC affiliate, appears to have been made in connection to a caravan of immigrants that traveled from Central America to the US–Mexico border at the end of 2018, drawing reporters from across the US to cover the events and attorneys representing the people in the caravan.
The database, which included 10 journalists, at least one US attorney, and 47 others who were listed as "organizers" or "instigators" contained passport pictures and notes on whether each individual had been arrested or interviewed.
The documents obtained by the station were reportedly part of a computer application that was shared with officials working in US Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, US Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations, and agents with the FBI's San Diego field office.
The documents include a logo bearing the US and Mexico flags and the initials "ILU," suggesting it is part of the International Liaison Unit that shares information between US and Mexico law enforcement agencies.
Two reporters who were included on the list told BuzzFeed News they had been stopped by Mexican authorities while covering the caravan, and had their passports photographed before being released.
Days later, they were detained by US Border Patrol agents at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, questioned, and asked to identify people from a series of pictures taken of the migrant caravan.
"It's really questionable and problematic when the US government is trying to prevent US citizens, journalists, from reporting on these border issues," Bing Guan, a freelance photographer who was identified on the list, told BuzzFeed News.
NBC, quoting an unnamed Department of Homeland Security source, reported the agency also created dossiers on the individuals named on the list, including an attorney who has represented asylum seekers in Tijuana.
“We are a criminal investigation agency, we’re not an intelligence agency,” the source told the station. “We can’t create dossiers on people and they’re creating dossiers. This is an abuse of the Border Search Authority.”
According to the report, Nicole Ramos, Refugee Director and attorney for Al Otro Lado, a law center for migrants, had her information compiled in a dossier that included specific information including the vehicle she drives, her mother's name, and travel history.
"This is the true witch hunt, where the US government hypocritically holds itself out on the world stage as a protector of human rights, but instead uses precious finite law enforcement resources to violate the rights of attorneys and activists who demand that the US government obey the rule of law with respect to refugees, as well as the media who document the government's transactions," Ramos said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "Congress must hold public hearings on this abuse of law enforcement resources."
Ariana Drehsler, a photojournalist who did freelance work for BuzzFeed News, said she was stopped three times by border officials after attempting to return to the US on Dec. 30, 2018, Jan. 2, and Jan. 4.
During the three interviews, Drehsler, a US citizen, was asked about conditions at the migrant shelters, anti-fascist groups, and whether immigrants “had heard how hard it is to seek asylum," she told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday night.
“They were telling me how I was there on the ground [with the migrant caravan], and they weren’t,” she continued.
Asked why she had been stopped at the border, an immigration agent told Drehsler that her passport had been flagged, and that she should expect a secondary inspection and interview each time she returned to the US in the future.
Pressed on why she had been flagged, the agents told Drehsler they didn’t know.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “There’s a reason they are collecting this information and the lack of transparency is ridiculous.”
A US Customs and Border Protection spokesperson did not answer BuzzFeed News questions regarding the list, but in a statement pointed to a breach of the border wall in San Diego by members of the caravan in November, prompting authorities to fire tear gas and pepper pellets into the crowd.
"Criminal events, such as the breach of the border wall in San Diego, involving assaults on law enforcement and a risk to public safety, are routinely monitored and investigated by authorities," the statement read. "These activities could result in a more thorough review of those seeking entrance into our country."
The group of immigrants who breached a wall made it past one of two barriers at the border, reaching only into a "no-man's land" of the border.
"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," the agency said. "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."
But news of the list immediately drew concern and condemnation from civil rights and press freedom advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it was "exploring all options" in response to the government's list.
"This is an outrageous violation of the First Amendment," said Esha Bhandari, staff attorney for the ACLU. "The government cannot use the pretext of the border to target activists critical of its policies, lawyers providing legal representation, or journalists simply doing their jobs."
One senior ICE official not involved in the matter, but whose agency was provided the document, told BuzzFeed News that, "not knowing what they really wanted to accomplish it is hard to support this activity."
"It starts to smack of dictatorship or the persecution of actors and press during the Red Scare," the official said.
Go Nakamura, a freelance photographer who traveled to the border twice to cover the caravan, told BuzzFeed News his interview with border officials lasted about 40 minutes.
Nakamura was asked about the organizers of the caravan, his personal background, including how he became a journalist, and what he was covering. Toward the end of the interview, he said, he was shown several printed pictures of faces.
"He asked me, do I recognize any of the faces, and I didn't recognize any of the faces, so I said no," Nakamura said. "After I heard the story about other journalists who tried to go back to Mexico, but were denied, then I thought this was a big deal."
Nakamura said he and Guan were part of a group of five reporters who were traveling together and stopped by Mexican authorities on Dec. 25 or 26, 2018, and had their passports photographed.
All five of the reporters, they said, were stopped by officials when they tried reenter the US.
Nakamura and Go said they had been in touch with the ACLU and the Committee to Protect Journalists about their inclusion in the list.
"For years, the U.S. government has used the pretext of ‘border security' to trample on Americans’ constitutional rights," Mitra Ebadolahi, senior staff attorney at the ACLU's San Diego's Border Litigation Project, said in a statement. "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."
BuzzFeed News reporters Hamed Aleaziz and Adolfo Flores contributed to this report.