By Kendra Sitton | Editor
NBC7 hosted a discussion panel at San Diego Central Library on Wednesday, March 27, to inform the public about a secret government database tracking journalists and immigration advocates crossing the border. Many members of the audience were San Diego-based journalists or immigration activists themselves worried about having trouble passing through customs. Several members of the audience shared their own stories of being pulled into intensive interviews during secondary searches while crossing from Tijuana to San Diego.
The documents obtained by NBC7 show 59 people being tracked by the U.S. government. The database lists whether they have been interviewed by border authorities, their demeanor during those interviews, and links to a dossier of information gathered about each person.
Tom Jones, a member of the investigative team who helped break the story, revealed more about the days leading up to the reporting that has gained national attention.
According to Jones, he was skeptical at first when a whistleblower handed over the documents to NBC7’s assignment editor, but when he began to research the names, he found many of them had been public about harrowing experiences trying to get into the U.S.
While reports had circulated for months that journalists and immigration advocates were frequently being pulled into Secondary Inspection and left for hours while trying to cross the border, their investigation is the first that presumably links those incidents to an organized government effort to track those individuals.
Jones said many of those people felt targeted, and “this could be the connective tissue” pulling those experiences together.
There are still many unanswered questions about the database. Jones believes the names were compiled in late December after speaking to dozens of people on the list who shared information about their border crossings. However, the investigative journalists still do not know where the directive to start the database came from. “Who ordered it? What was ordered?” Jones asked.
In the two weeks between receiving the documents and reporting on them, Jones said the team was mostly focused on finding a second source. While they reached out to NBC officials on the national level who eventually found a source, Jones also received a statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That statement did not deny the existence of a database, but also defended those tactics. Jones took this as further confirmation their information was accurate.
Another member of the media on the panel, freelance photojournalist Ariana Drehsler, was tracked in the database. She said she was taken into secondary inspections multiple times while crossing the border, and soon had to stop bringing her laptop, which impeded her work photographing the migrant caravan, because she could be subjected to a device search. Drehsler said she was initially hesitant to go on the record when NBC7 contacted her but changed her mind.
“When he [Jones] told me that my name was on a list, I was incredibly shocked. Then angry. The reason I did come forward was that I’m still upset about it,” she said.
The photojournalist has not crossed the border since learning the government was recording her. She said in her secondary interviews, it seemed like the agents wanted her to be an informant on her sources as she covered migrants waiting to seek asylum in the U.S. She was asked about the people she spoke to in shelters as well as if she had any contact with AntiFa. The decentralized anti-fascist protesters have compared ICE with the Gestapo and called for their slaughter in September of last year.
For Pedro Calderon Michel, the news director of Telemundo 20, the most disturbing part of the database is that it includes Ivan del Campo Riebeling. Unlike many of the other people being tracked, Campo Riebeling actually has a criminal record and is currently under arrest in Mexico.
“Why is [Campo-Riebeling] next to journalists?” Michel questioned.
While many of the journalists in the audience expressed shock about the database, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Mitra Ebadolahi emphasized that this type of monitoring is not new for the U.S. government.
Ebadolahi, Border Litigation Project senior staff attorney for ACLU San Diego-Imperial Counties, said, “I’m pissed but I’m not surprised. The U.S. has been tracking activists for the better part of 50 years.”
However, she warned there are new implications for this type of tracking in the modern era because it can be more holistic and invasive. She also brought up that many of those on the list reported being interviewed by people wearing plain clothes who did not identify their agency.
She claimed the recently discovered database is just part of a wide-ranging effort to target legal immigration in every possible way — as not just asylum seekers, but everyone around them, are being zeroed in on.
Ebadolahi said the ACLU is still investigating the secret database and may file a lawsuit in response since the government’s tactics may cause a chilling effect to other journalists and activists who worry they, too, could be tracked.
Meantime, lawmakers demanded information from the Department of Homeland Security on the database back in March when it was first reported, but so far, the Trump administration has missed deadlines to inform Congress on the issue.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org