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July 23, 2019

Covert Government Program Spied on Activists at Mexico Border

LOS ANGELES — Humanitarian activists on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border who provided aid to migrants were widely lauded for their service. But to the Trump administration, they were an enemy that had to be stopped.

In March, it was revealed that the federal government operated a covert surveillance operation to not only gather information on these U.S. citizens and their colleagues, but also disrupt their work.

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles a First Amendment lawsuit on behalf of three humanitarians placed on a secret government watchlist for no other crime than their compassion.

Beginning in October 2018, the government operation secretly tracked their movements and actions, leading to them being harassed and detained at the border. In some cases, they were refused entry to Mexico or forced from that country if already there.

"To the Trump administration, compassion is a crime," said Mohammad Tajsar, staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal. "Not content to shut the country's doors to vulnerable families seeking refuge, the government launched a secret spying program to punish lawyers and activists who dared to provide for the basic welfare of migrants wanting a better life for themselves and their loved ones."

The three plaintiffs in the suit are:

  • Nora Phillips, a co-founder of the non-profit organization Al Otro Lado based in Los Angeles that provides legal and mental health services to migrants and immigrants.
  • Erika Pinheiro, co-founder of Al Otro Lado who organizes legal clinics in Tijuana, Mexico.
  • Nathaniel Dennison, a documentary filmmaker, shelter volunteer, and founder of the Through My Eyes foundation.

The government program not only spied on them, but also put alerts on their passports leading to them being interrogated, detained, and in some cases refused entry at the border.

Phillips, who traveled to Mexico several times a year on a multiple-entry business visa, did not know the government had placed an alert on her passport until January when she and family members flew to Guadalajara, Mexico on a vacation trip. Although she had never been arrested or convicted of any crime, the alert resulted in her separation from her family at the airport by Mexican authorities and her forcible return to the U.S. after a grueling detention. Since then, her application for a new business visa has been refused.

"Not only is this administration going after refugees and migrants, it's going after the helpers too," Phillips said. "I'm just trying to do my job."

Pinheiro, who lives in Baja California, traveled back and forth across the border numerous times a year for her work until January when she was not permitted to return to Mexico because, as she was told, an alert had been placed on her passport. Although she had also never been arrested or convicted of a crime, her multiple attempts to return home were refused until finally, after nearly a month, she was allowed to cross. But a Mexican official warned she would likely be detained and questioned any time she attempted to cross the border.

Dennison, the founder of the non-profit, non-partisan Through My Eyes Foundation that aims to provide children with documentary film tools to tell their own stories, moved into a migrant shelter in Mexico in December to help out as a credentialed volunteer. But after a month he was abruptly informed his credentials were being withdrawn. When he attempted to return to the U.S., border agents detained and interrogated him for several hours before allowing him to cross.

The government program remained secret until it was revealed in a series of investigative reports by NBC7 television news in San Diego. The program's database uncovered by the investigative journalists included not only dossiers but also, chillingly, photos of 59 humanitarian activists, journalists, and social medial influencers, including the plaintiffs in this lawsuit.

"This case presents important questions about our citizens' First Amendment rights as guaranteed under the Constitution," said R. Alexander Pilmer, a litigation partner at Kirkland. "We look forward to a court protecting these rights."

The lawsuit asks that any information gathered by the government program on the plaintiffs be expunged and that an order is issued to cease spying on them.

Read the lawsuit here: