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Freelance reporter stopped while crossing border; passport card photographed

June 7, 2019

Nate Abaurrea, a freelance reporter and radio journalist, was stopped and pulled aside for additional screening by U.S. Customs and Border Protection while crossing into Mexico at the San Ysidro border crossing on May 24, 2019. During the screening, Abaurrea was questioned about his work and an officer photographed his passport card.

Abaurrea, an American citizen, primarily covers sports, immigration and life on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. He told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that crossing the border has been a regular part of his life for years, and has been crossing at the same time and day—Friday morning at 9:15—for the past 10 weeks.

While he’s seen one or two officers, maybe with a dog, standing on the pedestrian crossing on the east side of the port of entry, he was surprised to see five CBP officials standing behind a blind corner.

“I’ve seen officers there before but never in that formation, never like that,” Abaurrea said.

As he rounded the corner and walked past the officers, they stopped and ordered him into “a little side cage area,” Abaurrea tweeted that day. He said that they directed him to be quiet, turn around and place his hands down on a metal table. Two of the officers emptied his pockets of all of his belongings, including his phone, but did not attempt to search his electronic devices.

Abaurrea asked the officers why he was being stopped. “What’s the probable cause here?” he quoted himself as saying in an account of the incident.

“We don’t need probable cause, sir,” an officer responded. “We can stop and search whoever we want.”

Officers asked how much money Abaurrea was carrying, where he was going and why. When he told them he was on his way to a work meeting, they asked him what he did and, when he said he was a writer, who he worked for. An officer Abaurrea identified as “CBP Officer West” then aggressively patted him down, snapping the waistline of his underwear. He was then ordered to show them his passport card.

As West checked the legitimacy of his card and entered numbers into a machine, Abaurrea wrote, a young female officer told him, “If you just cooperate, this will be over. You need to familiarize yourself with the rules, sir.”

When Abaurrea again asked to be told why he was stopped, he wrote that West smiled and asked him to take off his shoes, which were also thoroughly searched. He was then told he was free to go, and began gathering up his belongings. Abaurrea reported that at the moment he noticed West still had his passport card, the officer pulled out a cell phone and took a picture of the card. Abaurrea asked why he did that, to which West responded it was “for [his] records.”

CBP was not immediately available for comment on whether the officer used a government or personal phone, why the photo was taken or where the image is now.

Abaurrea told the Tracker that he has been in contact with multiple nonprofits and organizations that are providing him advice and legal aid as he pursues next steps, including filing for a redress number, a FOIA on his name in CBP and Department of Homeland Security records and a possible lawsuit.

— The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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