OPINION: Targeted harassment of journalists at the border infringe on First Amendment rights

NBC 7 San Diego released documents indicating that the U.S. government created a secret database of activists, journalists and social media influencers working with the migrant caravan.

The migrant caravan is a group of roughly 5,000 immigrants that caught media attention when it made its way from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.

In February, NPR released an article that said the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol conducted an increasing number of interrogations of these groups. Some of the journalists NPR spoke to alleged that agents tried to have them identify activists and other organizers that the agents said were “instigating” asylum-seekers.

The Intercept also released an in-depth article reporting on large-scale, continuous harassment by U.S. and Mexican authorities at the border. This included repeated secondary screenings of journalists, the CBP shackling journalists to benches in U.S. detention cells and agents forcing journalists to turn over notes, cameras and phones.

The Committee to Protect Journalists released a report in October about the increasing number of warrantless electronic searches at the border and called for the restriction of CBP’s power to enact these searches.

All of this has led to journalists and activists at the border saying that they felt like the U.S. government was making a concerted effort to track them, and the documents NBC 7 obtained from CBP has proved their suspicions.

The documents are screenshots of a SharePoint application used by agents from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations and agents from the San Diego sector of the FBI.

The documents “list people who officials think should be targeted for screening at the border,” according to NBC 7.

The list contains 10 journalists, seven of whom are U.S. citizens, and 49 others.

The documents are titled “San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019, Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators and Media,” and are dated Jan. 9, 2019. On the slides are the U.S. and Mexico flags and a banner that reads: “ILU-OASSIS-OMEGA.” This indicates that the list is a joint effort of the U.S. and Mexican governments.

The documents show each individual’s name, picture, nationality, occupation, whether they had an alert placed on them and “disposition,” which means actions the government has taken toward them.

Some individuals have a colored “X” over the photo, which indicates they were arrested, deported or had their visa revoked.

The source who provided the documents told NBC 7 that, allegedly, CBP is creating documents about the people on the list.

This is terrifying. The U.S. government is making a targeted, coordinated attack on the freedom of speech.

This is a flagrant abuse of authority by the CBP in what seems like retaliation against anyone who may be critical of CBP practices that violate human rights.

In May, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained documents that showed widespread abuse and neglect of unaccompanied immigrant children detained by CBP. This combined with other allegations of assault and mistreatment make it clear why the CBP is retaliating against journalists and activists; it’s trying to cover itself and prevent people from seeing what seems to be widespread, systemic corruption.

People should pay attention and speak out against these abuses of power. Otherwise, the government won’t stop, and it might become more brazen.

Fascism doesn’t happen overnight; it happens in degrees, and the U.S. is already several degrees further than it ever should have gotten.