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US surveils border activists and blocks their work, lawsuit says

The US government has interfered with humanitarian aid work at the US-Mexico border by monitoring activists, restricting their travel and detaining them, a new lawsuit alleges.

In a complaint filed in Los Angeles federal court on Tuesday against Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the FBI, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleges that the US government surveilled three not-for-profit organizers, who were included in a secret US database of more than 50 activists and journalists that was leaked earlier this year. The surveillance efforts hampered the activists’ relief efforts on both sides of the border, according to the the complaint.

“It’s terrifying,” Erika Pinheiro, an attorney with the immigrant rights’ organization Al Otro Lado and plaintiff in the case, told the Guardian by phone from Tijuana, Mexico. “This administration has taken a lot of steps to criminalize US citizens who stand in opposition to their policies … I’m just trying to do my job.”

The ACLU complaint builds on documents obtained and published by the NBC 7 news station in San Diego in March, which suggested the US government had maintained the database of activists and journalists.

It names three activists on the list: Pinheiro, the Al Otro Lado co-founder Nora Phillips, and Nathaniel Dennison, a documentary film-maker who moved into a migrant shelter in Mexico in December to work as a credentialed volunteer.

The lawsuit alleges unconstitutional investigations and surveillance and provides detailed accounts of the way the monitoring has derailed their lives and work. It also demands that the government expunge records unlawfully collected and cease surveillance and investigation of the plaintiffs’ free-speech activities.

CBP and FBI spokespeople declined to comment.

Phillips has worked with refugees, deportees and immigrants in Tijuana and LA, traveling to Mexico multiple times a year on a business visa. On a trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, with her family in January, she learned there was an alerta on her passport, the complaint says. Mexican authorities told her the alerts typically occurred when there were “criminal proceedings against that person and the government does not want that individual to leave”, the complaint continues.

Mexican authorities separated Phillips from her seven-year-old daughter, detained her overnight, denied her food, and eventually forced her to return on a flight to LA, the suit says. Mexican consular staff in LA later told her that her application for a visa would be denied due to the passport alert.

The complaint alleges also alleges that Pinheiro, 40, was detained on a trip to Tijuana in January and forced to return to San Diego, even though her infant child and partner were in Mexico. For a month, she couldn’t return to Mexico, was separated from her family and was unable to continue her aid work in Tijuana.

Activists hold a candlelight vigil at the perimeter fence securing a US Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas.



Activists hold a candlelight vigil at the perimeter fence securing a US Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

“It was just really stressful to me, knowing I couldn’t get back to them,” she said. She was able to return eventually and has continued crossing the border between San Diego and Tijuana through the San Ysidro border crossing. But she said she could not fly internationally, because of the risk of detention.

Pinheiro said the travel restrictions had damaged a family reunification project she was working on, which aims to reunite parents deported from the US with their children after separation. Pinheiro said she could not travel to Central America to meet with clients in the midst of cases. She added that Phillips, her colleague, had been unable to run her clinics in Mexico that support deportees and refugees, helping them with housing, employment, health care and other vital needs. Neither woman has ever been arrested or convicted of a crime.

“Knowing that the US and Mexican governments are surveilling me is obviously very stressful, especially living in the border region, which is extremely militarized,” said Pinheiro.

She added that she was terrified of being detained again, a process she said was like being placed in a “black hole” without access to attorneys. “I know at any moment that could happen to me.”

Dennison, the third plaintiff, was detained at the San Diego-Tijuana border in January. US authorities interrogated him about his activism and participation in previous protests. His Mexican visa was confiscated, and he was forced to return to California, the complaint said.

The watchlist included Dennison’s photo with the label “Suspected Antifa/Organizer”, referring to a broad term used to describe leftwing anti-fascist activists.

But Dennison and the ACLU say the organization he founded, Through My Eyes Foundation, works with youth on documentary film-making, is non-partisan, and has no ties to anti-fascist groups. Dennison has also been unable to travel and has been unable to raise money for his work because of the surveillance.

CBP previously defended the list, saying it was monitoring people linked to the 2018 migrant caravan.

But Pinheiro and Phillips did not work with people on the caravan, and Dennison had only volunteered at a shelter that housed some of the migrants, according to the complaint.

It was not surprising that the government had a watchlist and was monitoring aid workers, said Mohammad Tajsar, an ACLU attorney. But he said it was particularly disturbing that the US was using that list to detain and interrogate people and stop them from traveling.

“It is deeply troubling. It signals a weaponization of surveillance in ways we’re not used to,” he said, adding: “The resources committed to criminalizing these people who are simply trying to help migrants are resources that are desperately needed to actually support these individuals and provide them refuge.”

Pinheiro said the ordeal had given her a small taste of the suffering the system inflicts on her clients, adding: “I’m frightened for our country and the future of our clients. It’s just going to get worse.”

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