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Trump Used Secret Terrorism Unit To Harass Lawyers And Journalists At Border

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Taylor Levy couldn't understand why she'd been held for hours by Customs and Border Protection officials when crossing back into El Paso, Texas, after getting dinner with friends in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in January 2019. And she didn't know why she was being questioned by an agent who'd introduced himself as a counterterrorism specialist.

Levy was part of the legal team representing the father of a girl who'd died the previous month in the custody of the Border Patrol, which is part of CBP. "There was so much hate for immigration lawyers at that time," she recalled. "I thought that somebody had put in an anonymous tip that I was a terrorist."

The truth was more troubling. Newly released records show that Levy was swept up as part of a broader than previously known push by the administration of President Donald Trump to use the federal government's expansive powers at the border to stop and question journalists, lawyers and activists.

An email shows agents being instructed to flag lawyers Taylor Levy and Héctor Ruiz coming through U.S. ports of entry, noting "subjects are suspected of providing assistance" to the caravan. Credit: Obtained by ProPublica via Santa Fe Dreamers Project


The records reveal that Levy and attorney Héctor Ruiz were interrogated by members of CBP's secretive Tactical Terrorism Response Team. The lawyers were suspected of "providing assistance" to the migrant caravan that was then the focus of significant attention by the administration and right-wing media. Officials speculated in later reports that immigration lawyers were seeking to profit by moving migrants through Mexico, and that "Antifa" may have been involved.

The records were provided to ProPublica by the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a public interest law firm and advocacy group that received them after filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit about the stops of Levy and Ruiz at the border in El Paso.

Following revelations two years ago by NBC 7 San Diego that some journalists and others were targeted for questioning when crossing from Tijuana, Mexico, the Trump administration maintained that the incidents were limited to San Diego and a handful of U.S. citizens. But the new documents prove the operation went further — and raise questions about how many others were targeted.

While the records are heavily redacted, they provide a window into exactly how the targeting worked. They also show that the push was based in part on claims that were simply wrong — for example, that Levy met with members of the caravan in Mexico while they were traveling towards the border.

"This whole thing is COINTELPRO for dummies," said Mohammad Tajsar, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to a notorious domestic spying program from decades ago. Tajsar is representing some of the San Diego activists who were stopped. An "intel-gathering apparatus was shared and deployed through a number of different agencies and resulted in a dragnet that ensnared a whole bunch of people."


A page on Levy from a Customs and Border Protection database with a handwritten note made about an officer called to her interrogation. Credit: Obtained by ProPublica via Santa Fe Dreamers Project

Responding to questions from ProPublica, a CBP spokesperson said in a statement: "In response to incidents in November 2018 and January 2019, which included assaults against Border Patrol Agents, CBP identified individuals who may have information relating to the instigators and/or organizers of these attacks. Efforts to gather this type of information are a standard law enforcement practice." The statement does not address the targeting of Levy and Ruiz or what role investigators suspected two lawyers in El Paso of playing in attacks on federal agents that were in San Diego.

The administration of President Joe Biden is continuing to fight several lawsuits filed against the Trump administration over the operation. The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general promised to investigate the allegations in 2019, as the CBP spokesperson noted to ProPublica, but it has not published its findings. The current head of U.S. Border Patrol is a career agent who was in charge of the San Diego sector when agents there were helping lead the surveillance effort.

Neither Levy nor Ruiz were told why they were being questioned. What they were asked about didn't give them many clues. Both were questioned about their activities in Mexico — specifically, if they had been to Tijuana recently. They were questioned about their jobs and educational backgrounds; Ruiz was asked about the funding of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, where they work as an attorney.

Both lawyers also recall being asked about their beliefs. Levy remembers an agent asking her why she worked for a Catholic aid organization if she didn't believe in God, while Ruiz told ProPublica they were asked about their opinions of the Trump administration and the economy. Government notes of their interviews provided as part of the suit don't reference those questions, but they do cite comments from both Levy and Ruiz criticizing Trump's border policies.

Ruiz ultimately agreed to a phone search, despite their concerns about agents reading privileged attorney-client communications, which is exactly what the agents did. The records note the use of WhatsApp to communicate with people described as "foreign national" — Ruiz's clients.

Ruiz didn't tell anyone about their late-night interrogation for weeks after it happened. When they learned the same thing had happened to Levy, and when the NBC 7 story appeared two months later showing that similar episodes in San Diego had been part of a deliberate targeting effort, the El Paso lawyers sought to find out if they had been on the same watchlist. So Ruiz's then-colleague Allegra Love filed a Freedom of Information Act request followed by a lawsuit.

This spring, they finally got a complete-enough set of documents to piece the truth together.

In late November 2018, writing up an interview with a migrant who'd traveled with the "caravan," San Diego-area border agents identified Levy and Ruiz as two of "three attorneys/legal assistants that most likely traveled to meet with the caravan." The redacted notes leave it unclear whether the migrant identified the two by name, or whether agents made the connection on their own. Either way, by the time that email was forwarded to San Diego's Border Intelligence Center, the two were identified as "ASSOCIATED TO THE MIGRANT CARAVAN DEC 2018."

In fact, Levy had not only never met with people in the caravan, colleagues recall she'd vocally criticized the caravan at the time. Ruiz had conducted some legal workshops for caravan migrants weeks before their arrival in Tijuana, when they'd been staying in a soccer stadium in Mexico City. Ruiz and Love told ProPublica they had encouraged migrants with tenuous asylum claims not to attempt to come to the U.S. and didn't have any further involvement with the group.

According to emails obtained in the lawsuit, agents were instructed to flag Levy and Ruiz (as well as three others whose information is redacted) in the system for screening people coming through U.S. ports of entry.

When Ruiz came back to El Paso after a night out in Ciudad Juarez in December, and when Levy returned from that January dinner, the port officer checking their passports saw an alert that they should be interrogated by a member of CBP's Tactical Terrorism Response Team.

The team's stated mission is to stop suspected foreign terrorists from entering the country. But the government has expanded powers at the border that allow it to stop and question civilians entering the U.S. Records produced in an ongoing ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit about the unit have shown that its members frequently question American citizens. (CBP did not respond to questions about the role of the terrorism teams.)

What exactly the interrogations of Levy and Ruiz were trying to uncover still isn't clear. Levy and Ruiz both got the impression that they were being accused of "coaching" asylum-seekers to lie to border agents. The newly disclosed records don't include anything about that, at least not in the unredacted text, but they do say that Ruiz "admitted to facilitating the migrant caravan by providing legal guidance free of charge and educate the migrant's with the Asylum process."

The accusation that telling asylum-seekers about how U.S. law works is "facilitating" their entry reflected a broader suspicion that asylum-seekers were trying to subvert U.S. law rather than accessing a legal right. One Border Patrol email from the San Diego side of the targeting operation, obtained in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by NBC 7 and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and shared with ProPublica, referred to crossing the border to claim asylum as exploiting "a loophole."

A Border Patrolintelligence reportfrom El Paso, written several months after Levy and Ruiz were interrogated and included in the newly released documents, cast further aspersions on asylum lawyers. The report states, "Mass migration from South America into the United States is said to be coordinated at some level by non profit organizations who wish to line their pockets with proceeds deriving from migrants transportation fees up to the U.S Mexico border, and ultimately proceeds deriving from the migrants paying for their asylum case lawyers once they have arrived to the United States." It goes on to associate this effort with "other groups such as Antifa."

The report also asserts, inaccurately, that Levy and Ruiz were "seen in Tijuana assisting with the migrant caravan."

Now that the lawyers know more about why they were stopped — and by whom — they are all the more concerned it could happen again. Levy has since moved to California but told ProPublica she fears retaliation for this article.

Ruiz still crosses the border multiple times a week for work. "I'm still super fearful," they told ProPublica. "I don't know if this is the day they're going to detain me again." The caravans and Trump are both gone, but "I'm still doing this work. And I don't know what sort of false accusations they can throw going forward."

ICE Expels Migrant Kids 'To Prevent Virus Spread' — After They Test Negative

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Since March, the Trump administration has pushed thousands of migrant children back to their home countries without legal screenings or protection, citing the risk that they could be carrying COVID-19 into the United States.

But by the time the children are boarded on planes home, they've already been tested for the virus — and proven not to have it.

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Trump’s Visa Ban Causes Shortage Of Young Doctors

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

As hospitals across the United States brace for a difficult six months — with the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic still raging and concerns about a second wave in the fall — some are acutely short-staffed because of an ill-timed change to immigration policy and its inconsistent implementation.

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How Trump’s Changing Rules Deceive Asylum Seekers

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

The Trump administration has long said that there’s a right way to seek asylum in the United States: Come to an official port of entry at the border, then invoke the right under U.S. law to humanitarian protection.

But now, thousands of people are being barred from the U.S. precisely because they followed those rules.

Under an administration policy issued last week, most migrants who’ve passed through a third country — say, Mexico — will not even be allowed to request asylum at official border crossings.

That includes thousands of asylum-seekers — from countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Cameroon — who were already waiting at Mexican border towns to gain entry to U.S. ports when the new rule took effect.

Because the Trump administration has strictly limited the number of asylum-seekers allowed to enter most of the US/Mexico border’s busiest ports each day, these migrants signed on to unofficial waitlists and spent months waiting to gain legal entry to the U.S. as asylum-seekers.

One little-noticed consequence of the new policy is that those who decided against entering the US illegally are now paying a price for having followed the rules. Had they simply crossed into the U.S. illegally when they arrived, they would have had their asylum claims heard under the rules in place at that time. But by choosing to wait to set foot on US soil and trigger their asylum rights, they’ll now be subjected to the new regulation once they do enter — a rule which renders most of them ineligible.

The administration made them wait. Indeed, in recent weeks, it admitted fewer asylum-seekers than ever at the border’s busiest crossing in San Ysidro, California: In nine out of the 14 days before the new rule was implemented, no asylum-seekers were allowed to enter the port of entry at all, according to Ryan Krause, a human rights observer with the advocacy organization Al Otro Lado.

Then, with the new regulation, it put up a wall in front of any non-Mexican asylum-seeker who waited.

The new regulation is already facing court challenges, with federal hearings this week in Washington, D.C., and the Northern District of California. Advocates say it will result in victims of persecution being deported to their home countries, in violation of international law. The Trump administration claims it comports with international law by allowing migrants to seek a lesser form of humanitarian protection called “withholding of removal,” which is harder to qualify for, even if they’re barred from asylum.

Even the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Mark Morgan, has said the Trump administration expects a federal judge to stay the regulation while it undergoes legal review.

But on the Mexican side of the border, it’s already having real-world effects — ramping up the frustration that migrants stuck in border towns already had, advocates say, and potentially increasing the odds that migrants who’ve been patiently waiting will simply give up and cross the border illegally.

Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a request for comment about the inclusion of migrants waiting at ports of entry in the new regulation, or to questions about why port officials accepted fewer asylum-seekers than usual in the weeks leading up to the overnight rule change.

“I understand their frustration,” Enrique Valenzuela, of the State Population Council in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, told ProPublica. “People who have been waiting for two or three months say: ‘Hey! We’ve been waiting here! We didn’t cross at some other point. We’re not getting the best end of the deal.’”

The migrants who agreed to wait are those most likely to trust the system and care about doing things through established legal channels. “People are like, ‘I’m here, I’m doing it legally, I have faith that it’s going to get better, all I can do is wait,’” Krause said. “You travel from Africa through 10 countries, through the jungles of Panama, many people got robbed or their friends were killed along the way, people narrowly escaped death themselves — they’ve been through horrible travails and incredibly arduous journey, people aren’t going to be easily shaken by this process here.”

But the new rule is just the latest development to wear away at that resolve.

Limits on how many asylum-seekers may enter a port of entry each day — a practice known as metering — have been widespread at many border ports since at least 2018, especially at the high-traffic ones in El Paso, Texas, and San Ysidro.

Customs and Border Protection, which oversees ports of entry, maintains that ports simply lack the resources to process all asylum-seekers who want to enter at once; each port has a limited number of holding cells, for example. Capacity varies substantially from port to port, and from day to day, and officers have to balance their duty to process asylum-seekers with other tasks, like screening vehicles for drugs.

Many human rights advocates say that regardless, the government has an obligation to allow people to seek asylum. Groups led by Al Otro Lado have filed a lawsuit in Southern California challenging metering. It hasn’t moved as quickly as higher-profile immigration policy lawsuits.

The U.S. government doesn’t select who is allowed to cross on a given day; officials simply give a number to their Mexican counterparts of how many people will be allowed to set foot on U.S. soil. Mexican authorities, civil society organizations and asylum-seekers themselves take care of the rest. In Juárez, for example, the list managed by the State Population Council currently has about 5,500 names.

While the longest lists are in Juárez (across from El Paso) and Tijuana (across from San Diego and the San Ysidro port), hundreds-long waiting lists exist even in small border towns across from minor ports. In the shelters of Piedras Negras across from Eagle Pass, Texas, for example, some 400 migrants are currently waiting to be allowed to cross.

Some of these migrants are Mexican. But many are from other countries and therefore subject to the new bar to asylum.

In the six days after the new regulation took effect, Krause said that roughly 30 to 40 non-Mexican migrants were admitted to the port of entry at San Ysidro — from countries including Cameroon, Haiti, Eritrea and Venezuela, as well as the Northern Triangle nations of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). All of them arrived in Tijuana by the first week of April, and signed up for the waitlist between April 2 and 6.

Any of them could have crossed before July 16 if the port officials at San Ysidro had admitted them when they arrived — or even if they had maintained the pace of admissions from spring 2019, when an average of 40 people were admitted per day, through this summer.

But instead, in mid-June, admissions dropped off drastically. Between July 1 and July 15, an average of six asylum-seekers were admitted per day, Krause said.

And so, when numbers picked up again last week, the migrants admitted — at least the non-Mexicans — were subject to the new regulation.

The waitlists are not recognized by the U.S. government, and no one who has signed them has any protection as asylum-seekers. The lists are simply an effort, often started by asylum-seekers themselves (but now managed in some places by other institutions, like the State Population Council in Juárez) to bring some order to the process.

Meanwhile, ports now have an added demand on their limited resources — sending asylum-seekers back to Mexico after their initial processing to await court hearings, under the Trump administration program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP.

Twenty thousand asylum-seekers have been sent to wait in Mexico under MPP since it was first instituted in January — most of them in the last few months, as the program has aggressively expanded. Their asylum claims are moving forward in U.S. immigration courts, but the asylum-seekers themselves are only allowed into the U.S. to attend those hearings. They show up at a port of entry on the day of their hearing, are escorted into the U.S. and then returned after the hearing with instructions to come back on the next court date.

A Department of Justice spokesperson confirmed to ProPublica that asylum-seekers who had first entered the U.S. before July 16 wouldn’t be subject to the new asylum rule, even if they were in Mexico when the regulation went into effect under MPP.

The exact same space and personnel that would be used to process new asylum-seekers are now being used to ship people with existing asylum cases back and forth each day. “They’ve chosen to use CBP’s limited capacity to process people for return,” Kennji Kizuka, of Human Rights First, said.

Many migrants choose not to wait; in Juarez, Valenzuela of the State Population Council said, an estimated 1,000 of the 5,500 people currently on the waitlist have probably already crossed illegally into the U.S.

There are compelling reasons to try to cross at a port — for one thing, the administration still hopes to reinstate a regulation issued in October that would bar asylum for those who crossed illegally. That regulation was put on hold by the courts days after it was issued, and an appeal will be heard in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the fall.

But the slowing trickle of admissions (especially in Tijuana) in the weeks before the new rule, followed by the overnight change that rendered so many asylum-seekers retroactively ineligible, have led to confusion, frustration and even despondency, according to Krause.

Some “are in some way evaluating the possibility of crossing before it gets hard to do so,” Valenzuela said. “I ask them every time to be patient, to keep calm, but it’s hard to convince them when they’ve been waiting for two or three months.”

Organizers find themselves in the position of counseling patience to migrants who post angry video rants on social media, or who come to them trying to understand rumors of forthcoming changes to the law that will make it even harder to enter the U.S. — changes like the one issued last week.

“People have lost faith in the system, trust in the process,” Krause said of the migrants waiting in Tijuana. Lately, he added, he’s hearing a lot more questions about what the laws are like in Canada.

 

Border Patrol Agents Circulate ‘Challenge Coin’ Mocking Care for Migrant Kids

An unofficial commemorative coin has been circulating among Border Patrol agents at the U.S./Mexico border, mocking the task of caring for migrant children and other duties that have fallen to agents as families cross into the U.S.

On the front, the coin declares “KEEP THE CARAVANS COMING” under an image of a massive parade of people carrying a Honduran flag — a caricature of the “caravan” from last fall, which started in Honduras and attracted thousands of people as it moved north. (While the caravan included many women and children, the only visible figures on the coin appear to be adult men.)

The coin’s reverse side features the Border Patrol logo and three illustrations: a Border Patrol agent bottle-feeding an infant; an agent fingerprinting a teen boy wearing a backwards baseball cap; and a U.S. Border Patrol van. The text along the edge reads “FEEDING ** PROCESSING ** HOSPITAL ** TRANSPORT.”

The coin appears to poke fun at the fact that many border agents are no longer out patrolling and instead are now caring for and processing migrants — including families and children.

Government officials told ProPublica the coin was not approved or paid for by the government, unlike official “challenge coins” that go through an agency approval process. One Customs and Border Protection official, who was not authorized to give his name, characterized the coin as “something that somebody’s doing on their free time” — comparing it to woodworking. “A lot of the agents have little hobbies on the side, they build little wooden figures that they have at their homes,” the official said.

It’s not clear who created the coin or how widely it’s been circulated among border agents. But Border Patrol agents in California and Texas — on opposite ends of the U.S./Mexico border — had seen the coin circulated at their workplaces. One of the agents received a coin in April when a colleague brought several to pass around at the office; the other was shown an online order form for the coins by a colleague at work.

Both said the coins were promoted via the secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol officials that, as ProPublica recently detailed, included racist and violent posts.

The coin is part of a tradition of unofficial “challenge coins” — which generally outnumber official ones — which are common in the military and law enforcement as a way for members to celebrate achievements and build camaraderie.

But outside observers found this particular coin anything but harmless.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, who worked at CBP under the Bush and Obama administrations, said that the coin was evidence (like the 10-15 Facebook group) of “reflexive dehumanization” by Border Patrol agents, and that the “tolerance for shenanigans” by supervisors and leadership had gone too far. “You have to say, ‘This is affecting the integrity and authority of us all.’”

The coin appears to have been designed, ordered and distributed months into the surge of Central American families at the border. Coins were being distributed to agents by late April, before the current wave of public attention and outrage over conditions for migrants in Border Patrol custody.

Customs and Border Protection officials said they did not know about the coin until contacted by ProPublica. They said they would investigate it for potential trademark violation since the coin includes the Border Patrol’s logo.

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has a firm policy on the use and production of challenge coins bearing CBP identifiers,” a CBP official said, including the U,S. Border Patrol logo. “The coin in question is not an officially approved CBP coin. CBP intends to investigate the matter and will make a determination when all the facts are known.”

However, officials implied that if the coin had not used the official logo, it would be beyond their control. “If it’s something that somebody’s doing on their free time,” said the official who asked not to be named, it is not something the agency can control.

Hector Garza of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents, said he had not seen the coin either. When shown pictures of it by ProPublica, and in response to follow-up questions, he said, “I have no thoughts about the coin.”

Challenge coins have spread throughout the federal government, but are especially popular within Border Patrol. They depict individual offices or stations or particular missions. If official visitors come by to tour a station, a coin may be presented.

In this case, the “mission” being mockingly commemorated is the unprecedented amount of migrant care and processing Border Patrol agents did in the spring of this year.

Taking care of migrants (including children) in short-term custody is part of the Border Patrol’s job. When the intake system for migrant children is overwhelmed, as it was in 2014 and has been again in 2019, Border Patrol often holds children for longer than the 72 hours prescribed by the federal Flores settlement (a court agreement that governs the treatment of children in immigration custody), often in spaces not designed for children — or anyone. In recent weeks the government has greatly reduced the number of children in Border Patrol custody, thanks in large part to funding from Congress that expanded the intake system’s capacity.

Some agents say that childcare and support have an opportunity cost: Any time an agent spends driving a van full of children to a child-only facility, for example, is time not spent “in the field” apprehending people who are trying to get away.

“Us caring for kids and families, that’s not the frustration,” Garza said. “Drugs coming into the country? That is a frustration. People with criminal records coming in and us not being able to catch them? That is a frustration.”

That tradeoff appears to be fueling the emotions expressed by the coin — with the back side depicting the tasks that agents must do instead of being out “on the line,” and the front side referring to the legal “loopholes” that make it harder to detain and deport migrants under 18 and families.

One Border Patrol agent, when asked about morale among agents detailed to care and transport, replied with a photo of a dumpster floating down a flooded river.