Newly released documents show border agents began investigating an American pastor working with migrants in Tijuana in January 2019 when intelligence revealed possible evidence of marriage fraud. But the pastor said she did nothing wrong, and in the course of the investigation, border agents violated her constitutional rights.
Pastor Kaji Dousa, a former pastor of the United Church in La Mesa, now lives in New York City.
At the end of 2018, Dousa flew back home to pray with members of a migrant caravan from Central America.
Then, on January 2, 2019, Dousa was returning from Tijuana through the San Ysidro Port of Entry when an alert placed on her passport prompted agents to send her to secondary screening. Dousa told NBC 7 Investigates she was taken to a back room and questioned for hours about her aid work south of the border.
But what Dousa didn’t know at the time was the reasons behind her passport being flagged.
Two months later, NBC 7 Investigates found Dousa’s name on a secret government watchlist used to track the movements of journalists, attorneys, and immigration aid workers working near the border. Agents labeled all 59 targets on the watchlist as “coordinators, organizers, instigators, or media” tied to the migrant caravan.
Watch the original reporting below.
Dousa was outraged when NBC7 informed her that she was a target of the government’s secret tracking effort.
“I believe it's a political hit list and they're trying to use me as a broad example,” Dousa said. “I think they're trying to intimidate us because we're dissidents and we're being critical of what we believe to be evil.”
The revelation of the watchlist by NBC 7 prompted Dousa and other targets to file legal actions against the government.
Now, months later, Dousa is learning more about why border agents targeted her.
Newly released documents generated by her lawsuit reveal Customs and Border Protection officers suspected pastor Kaji Dousa was committing marriage fraud and was working with the anti-fascist radical protest organization "ANTIFA," which advocates the use of force to attain its political objectives.
“Possible connection to recent ANIFA movement along the southwestern border,” reads the Border Patrol Intelligence Unit’s entry on Dousa. “Identified as performing marriage ceremonies in Tijuana.”
One unclassified report includes a list of questions that Homeland Security agents wanted to answer about Dousa, including:
- Are religious organizations coercing individuals in the caravan to get married in Tijuana?
- Are these alleged marriage certificates legally binding in Mexico or the U.S.?
- Who started the caravan?
According to the files, agents suspected Dousa was encouraging migrants to cross the border illegally and committing marriage fraud. Their suspicions derived from an informant interview.
“Dousa told everyone that if they get married, they will get papers to live in the United States,” according to the Homeland Security informant, whose name was redacted from the records.
Dousa told NBC 7 Investigates that the marriage ceremonies she performed were not legally binding in either country but were protected by the U.S. constitution.
“I don’t know how [the U.S. government] can even start to claim that a religious ceremony is not real or valid, but that’s exactly what happened. Not only that, but it became a matter of suspicion for them,” Dousa told NBC 7. “It’s heartbreaking because they are supposed to be my government too.”
She confirmed she did marry some migrant couples, but never with the intent to circumvent immigration laws.
“These are families that have been together for years in common-law marriages, but they were too poor in their home countries to have a church-blessed wedding,” Dousa explained.
The document from Dousa's church, which was not an official marriage certificate, would have every family member’s name listed on a single record in case the families were separated when crossing the border or seeking asylum.
“So that was the purpose…if people did cross, we just wanted them to be able to be together,” said Dousa. “It was a church certificate which we have the full authority to issue.”
Dousa also claims federal agents violated her constitutional rights by using her religious activities as a basis to investigate her.
“You don’t want the government telling you what your pastor can say, what your pastor can do, and that’s exactly what is happening.”
Dousa also said she has no affiliation with ANTIFA, and had no role in organizing the migrant caravan.
On Pastor Kaji Dousa’s entry on the watchlist obtained by NBC 7, agents had indicated Dousa’s SENTRI pass used for expedited clearance to cross the border was revoked.
But the internal documents show on March 8, 2019, two days after NBC 7 first reported on the watchlist, and Dousa’s entry in the watchlist, someone accessed Dousa’s profile in the system used for screening individuals crossing into the United States (referred to as a “TECS Person Query”) and wrote, “Do not revoke SENTRI based on this lookout.”
Dousa believes agents were “covering their tracks” after news of the watchlist began circulating and sparking outrage.
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection told NBC 7 the agency does not comment on pending litigation but noted that its “lack of comment should not be construed as an agreement with -- or stipulation to -- any of [Dousa’s] allegations.”
Previously, the agency has defended its tactics and said its agents’ actions were a legal and authorized effort to secure the U.S. border.
Dousa now wants a federal judge to order the government to delete all files and records that contain information about her. Dousa is also seeking a court order prohibiting the government from retaliating against border activists who exercise their constitutionally-protected rights.
“I think the constitution is very clear, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is incredibly clear,” Dousa said. “We just want to stand up for our freedom. That’s important.”
NBC 7 Investigates reporter Mari Payton and Executive Producer Tom Jones sat down with the government whistleblower who first discovered the watchlist. Hear from him in the latest podcast episode of INSIGHT below.