Documents Reveal U.S. Government Surveillance on Immigration Rights Activists, Lawyers and Journalists

Interview with Sue Udry, executive director of Defending Rights & Dissent, conducted by Scott Harris

Documents obtained by a San Diego TV News investigation revealed that a U.S. government surveillance program created a secret database of activists, journalists and attorneys. The individuals listed include 10 journalists, 7 of whom are U.S. citizens, a U.S. attorney, and 48 people from the U.S. and other countries, labeled as “organizers or instigators.” In some cases, American border officials working with the Mexican government placed alerts on individual passports. Those listed on the database were linked to a migrant caravan of refugees seeking asylum in the U.S., who traveled through Mexico to the U.S. border last fall around the time of the American midterm election.
Journalists who were assigned to cover the caravan for news outlets, as well as immigration rights activists and attorneys who offered to assist caravan members, said they had encountered harassment and intense inspections by both U.S. and Mexican border officials. Customs and Border Protection responded to the revelations by saying the surveillance program was a necessary response to assaults against border patrol agents in November 2018 and January this year at the San Ysidro border crossing.
A Nation magazine Freedom of Information Act request revealed another U.S. government surveillance database that monitored protests against Trump immigration policy and white supremacists in New York City, including one demonstration organized by Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-New York. Between the Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Sue Udry, executive director of the group Defending Rights & Dissent, who examines the chilling effect government surveillance has on activists, journalists and lawyers’ protected first amendment right to free speech.

SUE UDRY: The database was leaked to the NBC affiliate in San Diego, but we knew about the impacts of this database before we knew that there was hard evidence that there was a blacklist of people on the border. What’s wonderful about this leak is that it’s a document that substantiates that there was a real policy, a program targeting specifically activists and journalists and lawyers and something called “instigators” in the documents. We knew it was happening. But now the plausible deniability is taken away because we see this list of 59 people, the bulk of whom are U.S. citizens on this list that has stamped on the front, you can see on the document that it’s an intelligence product of the Mexican and U.S. government working together.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So can you give us some examples of what these individuals who are on this list experienced at the border?

SUE UDRY: It’s a range of things. There were some people who, for example, a photojournalist who’s a U.S. citizen who just kept being stopped at the border and then finally was denied entry into Mexico. A lawyer who kept getting shuttled into the secondary screening, which meant hours and hours of waiting to be able to cross the border. And then there’s one activist who was interviewed by, I think, The Intercept. He said that he’s a U.S. citizen living in Mexico and he was supposed to go up to San Diego for a meeting of activists, advocates who were working on U.S. policy. But he didn’t go because he was just so frightened about what was going to happen at the border. Was he going to get shunted into a secondary screening and have to wait for eight hours? Some people were actually apparently deported from Mexico.

So it’s a range of things that were happening to these people who ended up on this list, whose passports were marked and so who were subject to this more intense interrogation at the border.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Sue Udry, what is it your organization and other groups working to protect journalists and activists doing to push back on this collection of information about folks who are practicing their journalism – or activists, when it comes to immigration policy. How can this be addressed through the courts? Through the House of Representatives now under control of the opposition party, the Democrats? What can be done?

SUE UDRY: I think that what needs to happen is systemic change. And it starts with, you know, Congress has all to happily handed over so many authorities to the executive branch. You know, just up and down the line from war powers to just very lenient guidelines and rules for federal law enforcement agencies from the FBI to Custom and Border Protection. An argument can be made that what CBP did is not necessarily against any of the rules guiding them. And that’s the problem is that Congress needs to really instill some very strict rules that they’ve just not bothered to do. I would say that during the Bush administration, it was because there was still this heavy fear of 9/11 and not wanting that to happen again.

And then, to under Obama when the Democrats were in power, it was like, “Oh, Obama, he’s fine. We don’t need to worry about just the vast authorities that we’ve given to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.” And now that Trump is in office, it’s dawning on people that, “Oh, yeah, we really left the door wide open and now we’ve got to address it.”

So, I was pleased to see that in the House and the Senate, there’ve been strong letters written to ICE and DHS about this. I think there will be hearings and there will be some more congressional oversight about what’s going on. And so that’s very good. It’s great that this document came to light, so it gives Congress – it kind of shoves them into the realization that they’ve got to take some bold action.

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