Experts Defend Border Surveillance Program of Journalists, Attorneys and Advocates Tied To The Migrant Caravan

On the eve of a Department of Homeland Security deadline to answer questions about the program, two veteran law enforcement experts defend the actions of border agents.

Law enforcement experts from both sides of the political aisle are defending border agents’ use of a database to track journalists, attorneys and immigration advocates tied to the migrant caravan. 

Last week, an NBC 7 investigation confirmed the database has been used to monitor 59 individuals as they crossed the border, flagging them for secondary interviews and in at least five cases, denying journalists and attorneys entry into Mexico for work. Border agents placed alerts on the passports of 43 of 59 subjects of that investigation. 

Details about the controversial program are contained in documents provided to NBC 7 by a Homeland Security source on the condition of anonymity, given the sensitive nature of the surveillance. Other sources within the department confirmed the documents’ authenticity.

In addition, “dossiers” were created on some of the individuals, according to the source. NBC 7 obtained a copy of a dossier on an attorney that includes details about her work and travel history, the car she drives, and her mother’s name. 

To read and watch the original reporting, click here

The U.S. government created a secret database of activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan. NBC 7's Mari Payton has more.

The story sparked national headlines and outrage from some Democratic lawmakers in Washington D.C, and critics of the Trump administration. 

“That is just an outrageous abuse of [Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection],” said Representative Kathleen Rice (D-New York) in reaction to the NBC 7 report. “It is clear that the president is weaponizing [Homeland Security].” 

Rice and other lawmakers have asked Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen for answers about the program. The House Committee on Homeland Security also expressed “grave concern” about the surveillance and asked Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to answer questions and provide specific details about the program. 

Meanwhile, a former U.S. CBP Commissioner told NBC 7 the agencies appear to be within their rights when compiling this list, and said a thorough investigation is required before drawing any conclusions about its appropriateness or legality. 

“This [surveillance] is well within the authority of the CBP agency, under laws that have been passed by Congress,” said Alan Bersin, who served as Commissioner for Customs and Border Protection under President Barack Obama. “When you use words like ‘dossier’ or ‘harassment’ or ‘illegitimate inquiry’, you’re reaching a conclusion which really awaits a further examination of the facts.” 

Bersin said CBP agents have the right to question border crossers, but harassment is not a legitimate use of that authority. Bersin said that’s why the reasons for the surveillance and the use of the information gathered is of crucial importance. 

“I think general condemnation of this [surveillance], and the use of loaded terms does not contribute very much to a helpful debate over the practice,” Bersin said. 

The House Committee on Homeland Security called the federal government's secret database on activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan "troubling." NBC 7's Alex Presha has more on the reactions following NBC 7's exclusive look into the list.

Last week, CBP defended the program, describing it as a necessary response to assaults against Border Patrol agents in November 2018 and January of this year. A spokesperson said the agency had “identified individuals who may have information relating to the instigators and/or organizers of these attacks.” 

But three attorneys and six of the ten journalists listed in the documents told NBC 7 they were not questioned about those violent attacks. Some say they weren’t even present for the incidents in question. 

Photojournalist Ariana Dreshler was listed in the documents NBC 7 obtained. She was pulled into secondary screenings three times in December 2018 and January 2019. 

Drehsler said at times, the agents' tactics made her uncomfortable, but she understood why agents would want to question her. 

At one point, Drehsler said she volunteered information about the radical group Antifa, whose members were seen around the caravan. 

"I thought it was a little unfair that migrants were being blamed for something that, from what I heard, didn't seem like it was their fault," Drehsler told NBC 7. 

“The government has an interest in infiltrating the [migrant caravan] movement and talking to everyone about how they got here and why they’re here,” said former U.S. Attorney Peter Nunez. Nunez was also a former border enforcement director who served in the George H.W. Bush administration. 

Nunez said agents cannot force anyone to answer questions but also said interrogations are a critical part of our country’s continuing effort to maintain safety and order along the southern border. 

“Anybody -- no matter what their profession -- who comes across the border, is subject to the same interrogation as everyone else,” Nunez said. “You don’t have immunity.” 

Last week, the Democratic-controlled House Committee on Homeland Security asked CBP’s Commissioner for a full list of the individuals targeted, an explanation as to why those individuals were subject to questioning, copies of any “dossiers” created on those individuals, and a listing of individuals who may have had their phones searched or seized by officers. 

The deadline given for CBP to answer those questions is Thursday, March 14. 

To read more of NBC 7 Investigates’ coverage on this story, click here.

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