San Diego • The U.S. government kept a database on journalists, activists, organizers and “instigators” during an investigation into last year’s migrant caravan, infuriating civil liberties and media groups who called it a blatant violation of free speech rights.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection compiled information that contained passport photos, date of birth, suspected role in the caravan and whether they had been arrested. The database was revealed Wednesday by the San Diego TV station KNSD.
People listed in the Homeland Security documents provided to the station included 10 journalists, seven U.S. citizens, an American attorney and 47 people from Central America. Some of the people on the list were denied entry into Mexico and had their passports flagged.
The intelligence-gathering efforts were done under the umbrella of “Operation Secure Line,” which was designed to monitor the caravan of thousands of people who began making their way north from Central America late last year to seek asylum in the United States.
The government compiled the database at a time when the caravan was attracting considerable attention in the White House around the midterm elections, with President Trump repeatedly tweeting about the group.
Customs and Border Protection officials didn’t dispute the database, saying in a statement to The Associated Press that extra security followed a breach of a border wall in San Diego on Nov. 25 in a violent confrontation between caravan members and border agents. The confrontation closed the nation’s busiest border crossing for five hours on Thanksgiving weekend.
Officials said it was protocol to follow up on such incidents to collect evidence, and determine whether the event was orchestrated.
Such "criminal events ... involving assaults on law enforcement and a risk to public safety, are routinely monitored and investigated by authorities," the statement said.
The statement didn't address specifics of why journalists would be on the list to have their passports flagged.
Bing Guan, a freelance journalist and student at the International Center of Photography, said he and a colleague were stopped by U.S. agents while returning from Tijuana in December. A plainclothes agent who didn't identify his agency showed Guan a multi-page document with dozens of photos and asked him to identify people in the images. The agent then asked Guan to show him the photos he had taken in Tijuana.
Guan said the report of the dossiers confirmed the long-held suspicions he and other journalists had.
"It's sort of a weird combination of paranoia and pride," Guan said. "Paranoia because our own government is conducting these intelligence gathering tactics and these patterns of harassment in order to deter journalists from doing their jobs, but also a little bit of pride because I feel like I'm on the right track," Guan said.
The database was denounced by a variety of groups, including media organizations, the Mexican government, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"Monitoring journalists and immigration advocates is outrageous — and if based on their political opinions or legitimate human rights-related activities, as we suspect, it is unlawful," said Ashley Houghton, tactical campaigns manager for Amnesty International.
The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Congress to investigate what it called a "disturbing pattern of activity," and representatives from the organization plan to meet with Customs and Border Protection officials to discuss the situation.
The database was built at a time of increasingly tense relations between the Trump administration and journalists, with Trump calling some members of the press the "enemy of the state." There has also been an increase in false news stories proliferating on social media on both the political left and right aimed at edging the American public closer to one side.
The Department of Homeland Security last year sought a contractor to monitor more than 290,000 news sources and social media around the world in several languages, and compile a database of journalists, editors, foreign correspondents and bloggers. DHS officials said the aim was to gather open-source information, not unlike alerts the public can set up through email.
And according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by The Nation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, another part of Homeland Security, tracked a series of anti-Trump protests in New York City last year, including several that promoted immigrants' rights and one organized by a member of Congress.
The caravan documents, dated Jan. 9, are titled "San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019, Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators and Media." According to the station, the material was used by Homeland Security and other agencies, including some San Diego FBI agents.
One dossier was on Nicole Ramos, the refugee director and attorney for Al Otro Lado, a law center for migrants and refugees in Tijuana, Mexico. It included details such as the kind of car she drives and her mother's name, KNSD-TV reported.
A photographer working for The Associated Press was also on the list.
The Mexican government, which denied entry to some of the people in the database, said it disapproved of spying and said it didn't do "illegal surveillance" and would ask the U.S. to clarify any possible cases of "illegal spying."
"Mexico welcomes all foreign visitors who, obeying immigration laws, carry out in our territory tourism or professional activities," according to a joint statement from the Foreign Relations Department and the Department of Security and Citizen Protection.
Associated Press Writer Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report from Houston.