Rights advocates are issuing fresh warnings of intimidation and repressive tactics in the wake of new reporting about U.S. border patrol agents detaining and interrogating journalists and immigration lawyers, including questions about their political beliefs.
NBC News reported Monday that at least one journalist and four immigration lawyers were stopped at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stations near the border in Texas and Arizona in an apparent attempt to identify individuals in the area who oppose the Trump administration.
"The government cannot use the pretext of the border to target and punish activists critical of its policies, lawyers providing legal representation, or journalists simply doing their jobs. Whether near the border or not, it's a First Amendment violation and there's nothing complicated about that." —Esha Bhandari, ACLU
Taylor Levy and Hector Ruiz, who were working at the border to provide legal assistance to asylum seekers, were not included on CBP's list of 59 reporters, organizers, and perceived "instigators" in the San Diego area—but both were stopped at the border in recent months and subjected to questioning and forced to hand over their cell phones to agents.
"I was treated like a criminal," Ruiz told NBC of his experience being stopped by a group of agents as he was crossing the border near Juarez, Mexico.
Ruiz was asked about his political beliefs during a four-hour detention at a CBP station which continuted until he agreed to allow the agents to look through his cell phone contacts.
"They asked me what my opinion was on the administration, just generally. And how we are doing economically," Ruiz told NBC.
Weeks later, Levy was stopped in her car when she was attempting to cross into El Paso. She was held for two hours in a station and told that she would be arrested if she didn't answer the CBP agents' questions.
The reports of the agency's conduct were denounced as "intimidation" on social media.
— Alexandra Whitney (@iskandrah) March 18, 2019
These accounts that @CBP is targeting or detaining U.S. Citizens that are immigration lawyers, journalists, & advocates at the border is alarming. @CBP owes Congress answers on these practices that raise constitutional flags.pic.twitter.com/rzRdgESdAR
— Hispanic Caucus (@HispanicCaucus) March 19, 2019
Here are stories from more immigration lawyers and journalists targeted for questioning at the U.S. border with Mexico.
Monitoring journalists and advocates for their views is outrageous, and potentially unlawful: https://t.co/huvKRJPa8y
— Amnesty International (@amnestyusa) March 18, 2019
As Common Dreams reported last year, a change in the Immigration and Nationality Act more that 70 years ago resulted in a 100-mile zone near all U.S. borders—where 200 million people live—in which Americans officially do not have constitutional rights protecing them from warrantless searches and demands by CBP agents.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held up the rule over the objections of the ACLU and other rights groups. The ruling has resulted in incidents like Levy's and Ruiz's detentions, as well as those of a documentary filmmaker and two other lawyers.
Esha Bhandari, an attorney with the ACLU, rejected the notion that the CBP can legally seize reporters' and lawyers' phones and detain them without cause within the 100-mile zone.
"The government cannot use the pretext of the border to target and punish activists critical of its policies, lawyers providing legal representation, or journalists simply doing their jobs. Whether near the border or not, it's a First Amendment violation and there's nothing complicated about that," Bhandari told NBC.