A whistleblower in 2019 revealed the existence of a secret government database targeting a number of journalists, organizers, and immigrant rights advocates at the southern border. The level of detail in the database was frightening, reportedly tracking even the car model of one attorney. But ProPublica reports that newly accessed documents reveal the previous administration took even further steps to harass attorneys and others.
Taylor Levy, an attorney who advocates for asylum-seekers, was one of two lawyers interrogated by Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Tactical Terrorism Response Team when trying to cross back into the U.S. from Mexico, documents revealed. “The team’s stated mission is to stop suspected foreign terrorists from entering the country,” ProPublica’s Dara Lind reports. “But the government has expanded powers at the border that allow it to stop and question civilians entering the U.S.”
Héctor Ruiz, an attorney with Santa Fe Dreamers Project, was also interrogated by the tactical team. Both were questioned about what they were doing in Mexico, and their respective organizations. Ruiz, about Santa Fe Dreamers Project’s funding. “Levy remembers an agent asking her why she worked for a Catholic aid organization if she didn’t believe in God,” ProPublica reported, detaining her for hours after returning home from dinner in Juarez.
Records reveal officials tried to tie both to the so-called migrant caravan, and even tried to throw in some unfounded speculation about a favorite right-wing boogeyman, antifa. “What exactly the interrogations of Levy and Ruiz were trying to uncover still isn’t clear,” the report said. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to speculate that the previous administration’s goal was simply to harass people advocating for immigrants and asylum-seekers.
Nicole Ramos, the attorney who had her car make and other personal information tracked, told NBC 7 in 2019 that the whistleblower document “appears to prove what we have assumed for some time, which is that we are on a law enforcement list designed to retaliate against human rights defenders who work with asylum seekers and who are critical of CBP practices that violate the rights of asylum seekers.” Al Otro Lado, the organization she worked for, had already been targeted at the border, when two co-directors were barred from entering Mexico.
Brooke Binkowski, a freelance multimedia reporter who had been reporting on the so-called migrant caravan, told U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in 2018 that while her experience being stopped by border officials was less invasive than what others had experienced, “it felt like an ‘escalation,’” the report said. “They kept me: no threats, no yelling. But that was almost worse because if felt like they were just keeping me because they could,” she said in the report.
A change in the presidents should provide relief from continued retribution by border officials, but doesn’t. “The administration of President Joe Biden is continuing to fight several lawsuits filed against the Trump administration over the operation,” ProPublica reported. Rodney Scott, “who was in charge of the San Diego sector when agents there were helping lead the surveillance effort,” was subsequent appointed Border Patrol chief by the previous administration, and has been kept in place by the Biden administration.
That Scott is still in this position is outrageous—and dangerous. When the Biden administration last month issued a memo ordering federal immigration agencies to stop using the offensive term “illegal alien,” Scott denounced the policy, reportedly saying that while he would “not undermine this effort,” he “cannot endorse it.” Journalist Jocob Soboroff also said last year that Scott criticized his reporting on the previous administration’s separations at the southern border as “made-for-TV drama.” Children continue to remain separated from their parents years later.
“This is how CBP operates, & why @POTUS must stop funding the agency that further militarizes the southern border region,” tweeted the Southern Border Communities Coalition in response to the article. “I’m still super fearful,” Ruiz, who must still cross the border frequently, told ProPublica. “I don’t know if this is the day they’re going to detain me again … I’m still doing this work. And I don’t know what sort of false accusations they can throw going forward.”