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Human Rights Watch Urges Congress to Investigate Border Incidents Involving Attorneys, Journalists, and Human Rights Defenders

Re: Border incidents involving attorneys, journalists, human rights defenders

Dear Members,

We write to urge your offices to request information from the relevant US government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Patrol, and the US State Department, about incidents at the US-Mexico border in 2018 and 2019 affecting US citizens and other nationals’ rights to freedom of speech and movement.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, The Intercept, the San Diego Union Tribune, National Public Radio, and NBC7 Investigates (San Diego) have reported on at least 23 individuals (of which at least 15 are US citizen residents in states that include California, New York, and Virginia) who have been subjected by US government agencies to intensive scrutiny, interrogations, detentions, device searches, and limits on their freedom of movement during their work among migrants near the US-Mexico territorial border. According to these individuals and media accounts, there is a temporal connection between the following types of incidents and the individuals’ work among migrants who reached the US-Mexico territorial border in late 2018 and early 2019:

  • Having their biographical information and photographs collected in a SharePoint application document that, according to sources interviewed by NBC7 Investigates, were shared among component agencies of DHS and within the International Liaison Unit (ILU), which coordinates intelligence between Mexico and the United States;
  • Unusual and unexplained incidents of surveillance by the Mexican authorities and by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP);
  • Having their passports photographed by Mexican authorities;
  • Being denied entry into Mexico by Mexican authorities, but at the alleged behest of a “foreign” or the “US” government;
  • Being subjected to intensive questioning during secondary screening by US Customs and Border Patrol when re-entering the country after working in Mexico;
  • Having phones confiscated and searched by CBP during secondary screening.

We have the following questions related to these allegations:

  1. Did the US government place alerts on the passports of US citizens to prevent their entry into Mexico? If so, on what basis? Why were they not provided information regarding who had placed an “alert” on their passports and why?
  2. What process, if any, exists for informing US citizens, who are not to their knowledge under criminal investigation, that an alert has been placed on their passport?
  3. What was the basis for CBP’s decision to subject at least 15 US citizens as well as at least 8 nationals of other countries to intensive questioning in secondary screening, when that questioning is, according to media sources, related to activities such as journalism, and providing information to immigrants on their rights under US and international human rights law?
  4. Did CBP or the State Department or any US law enforcement agency request the Mexican government photograph these individuals’ passports and/or deny them entry to Mexico?
  5. What assurances, if any, can the Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies involved in these incidents provide that in future, no alerts will be placed on individuals’ passports because of their journalistic work, advocacy or exercise of fundamental freedoms?

The reporting provided in the attached five reports, and some factual cross-checks conducted by our organization, raise many questions about the basis for the treatment of these individuals and the possibility that such treatment involves targeting of individuals engaged in the constitutionally protected exercise of fundamental rights. We believe that the individuals involved, as well as the public at large, deserve to know the basis for these actions, and to see that their elected representatives are working to obtain answers.

We also believe that your offices should obtain assurances from the Department of Homeland Security and related law enforcement agencies that the exercise of such basic rights as free speech and freedom of movement will be valued and respected going forward.


Jasmine L. Tyler
Advocacy Director
US Program, Human Rights Watch

Addressed to:

The Honorable Charles Schumer
Democratic Leader
US Senate

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
US Senate

Sen. Diane Feinstein
US Senate

Sen. Kamala Harris
US Senate

Sen. Mark Warner
US Senate 

Sen. Tim Kaine
US Senate 

Sen. Ron Wyden
US Senate

Sen. Jeff Merkley
US Senate

Sen. Richard Blumenthal
US Senate

Rep. Pramila Jayapal
US House of Representatives

Rep. Nita Lowey
US House of Representatives

Rep. Steven Palazzo 
US House of Representatives

Rep. Will Hurd
US House of Representatives

Rep. Vincente Gonzalez
US House of Representatives

Rep. Henry Cuellar
US House of Representatives

Rep. Filemon Vela Jr.
US House of Representatives

Rep. Raúl Grijalva
US House of Representatives

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick 
US House of Representatives

Rep. Juan Vargas
US House of Representatives

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small
US House of Representatives

Rep. Veronica Escobar
US House of Representatives 

Referenced herein:

  Committee to Protect Journalists, “Several journalists say US border agents questioned them about migrant coverage,” February 11, 2019, (accessed March 7, 2019).

  Ryan Devereaux, “Journalists, Lawyers, and Activists Working on the Border Face Coordinated Harassment from U.S. and Mexican Authorities,” Intercept, February 8, 2019, (accessed March 7, 2019).

  Kate Morrissey, “Volunteers, activists, journalists interrogated at border about caravan,” San Diego Tribune, February 11, 2019, (accessed March 7, 2019).

  Max Rivlin-Nadler, “Journalists, Lawyers, Volunteers Face Increased Scrutiny By Border Agents,” National Public Radio, February 15, 2019, (accessed March 7, 2019).

  Tom Jones, Mari Payton, and Bill Feather, “Source: Leaked Documents Show the U.S. Government Tracking Journalists and Immigration Advocates Through a Secret Database,” NBC7 Investigates, March 6, 2019, (accessed March 7, 2019).

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