A New York-based Christian minister who organized “a mobile faith clinic” that ministered to Central American refugees in Tijuana is suing the Department of Homeland Security for interfering with her constitutional right to counsel and assist members of the migrant caravan.
The 43-page civil complaint, filed on July 8 in federal court in San Diego, is the first lawsuit to challenge a border surveillance program that NBC 7 Investigates disclosed earlier this year.
The complaint describes in detail Pastor Kaji Dousa’s work with migrant groups that traveled north to Tijuana. Many of the migrant caravan members planned to seek asylum in the United States.
“She preached to them,” the legal filing explains. “She heard their confessions. She offered them absolution. She anointed the sick. She laid hands on the injured.”
Get San Diego local news, weather forecasts, sports and lifestyle stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC San Diego newsletters.
Dousa’s attorneys argue that border agents violated Dousa’s First Amendment rights by tracking her religious activities and wrongly detaining her in January when she tried to cross the border back to San Diego after ministering to members of the migrant caravan.
The complaint further alleges that U.S. agents targeted Dousa for “heightened surveillance, held her in an hours-long secondary screening at the border, subjected her to extensive interrogation and revoked her SENTRI-pass,” which gives expedited border entry to qualified travelers.
Dousa, who previously served as a pastor in La Mesa, is represented by attorneys with the prestigious, global law firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer and the activist group Project Democracy.
Their legal action also describes how agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) alleged spied on Dousa at rallies and prayer vigils in New York, where she now serves as Senior Pastor at the Park Avenue Christian Church.
“These officials marked Pastor Dousa for surveillance because she prayed with and for immigrants, and because she generated publicity about the devastation that ICE’s enforcement activities rain on immigrants and their families,” the complaint alleges.
Dousa’s lawyers note that her name is included on a “secret government database of journalists, attorneys, immigrant-rights activists, and others targeted for their work with and for migrants.”
The existence of that database was first reported in March by NBC 7 Investigates.
According to the complaint, the government’s surveillance and “targeting” of Dousa has “forced her to take steps contrary to her faith and to forgo activities that her faith requires, including all but ending her ministry of pastoral care at the Southern Border.”
Dousa’s attorneys are asking Federal District Judge Larry Burns to rule that U.S. border agents have violated their client’s rights of free speech and religion and other First Amendment guarantees. The lawsuit also seeks a court order requiring the defendants to stop “surveilling, detaining, and otherwise targeting” Dousa.
NBC 7 Investigates asked the Department of Homeland Security, ICE and CBP about Dousa’s civil court action. A CBP spokesman said the agency “cannot comment on pending litigation.” The other agencies have not responded.
Dousa’s case is one of several recently profiled in a report by the global humanitarian group Amnesty International.
To read more about her, click here.