Journalist denied entry into Mexico found on government’s secret database

January 17, 2019

Freelance photojournalist Kitra Cahana had an alert placed on her passport and was entered into a database authorized by the U.S. government, which collected information about her and other journalists. Cahana was ultimately denied entry into Mexico multiple times.

Cahana was one of many journalists covering the Central American migrant caravan’s arrival to Mexico. While traveling from Canada to Mexico City on Jan. 17, 2019, Cahana was pulled aside at U.S. Customs and Border Protection preclearance in Montreal due to a “flag” on her passport, she said.

According to a lawsuit in which Cahana is a plaintiff, officers questioned Cahana about her work, how it was funded, whether she was covering the caravan on assignment and how she obtained assignments. After approximately 10 minutes, she was allowed to board her flight, but upon arrival was pulled aside again due to the alert on her passport — this time, by Mexican authorities, who Cahana said separated her from her phone.

According to the lawsuit, Cahana repeatedly asked the officers why she was being held and if it was because she is a journalist. An officer responded that she was being held because of a flag with Interpol by U.S. authorities.

She was ultimately denied entry to Mexico and was forced to return to Detroit; upon landing, she was once again flagged for secondary screening.

On March 6, NBC 7 in San Diego broke the story that Department of Homeland Security officials in San Diego had created a database of journalists, activists and attorneys who were involved in some way with the migrant caravan. The anonymous whistleblower who brought the documents to NBC 7 told the news outlet that the DHS had created dossiers on each individual in the database.

“We are a criminal investigation agency, we’re not an intelligence agency,” the anonymous source said. “We can’t create dossiers on people and they’re creating dossiers. This is an abuse of the Border Search Authority.”

DHS confirmed to NBC 7 that the seal on the documents indicates that “the documents are a product of the International Liaison Unit (ILU), which coordinates intelligence between Mexico and the United States.”

“In the current state of journalism, it's really freelancers who are bringing so much news to the public,” Cahana told NBC 7. “And the uncertainty of having an alert placed on your passport and not knowing where and when that's going to prevent you from doing your work is really problematic.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented other journalists covering the migrant caravan who were targeted by U.S. authorities for additional border screening measures. Some, including Go Nakamura and Ariana Drehsler, are listed in the database.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated with information detailed in a lawsuit Kitra Cahana filed in November 2019.

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

November 20, 2019 Update

Freelance photojournalist Kitra Cahana and four other photojournalists filed a lawsuit against the heads of the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Nov. 20, 2019.

The plaintiffs were each questioned by CBP officers from November 2018 to January 2019 about their work covering the Central American migrant caravan’s arrival to Mexico. In March 2019, it was revealed that DHS officials in San Diego had created a database of journalists, activists and attorneys who were involved in some way with the migrant caravan. Cahana and two of the other plaintiffs were listed in the database.

“This lawsuit challenges U.S. border officers’ questioning of journalists about their work documenting conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border,” the suit begins “The border officers’ questioning aimed at uncovering Plaintiffs’ sources of information and their observations as journalists was unconstitutional.”

The suit seeks a ruling that such questioning violates the First Amendment and an injunction requiring the agencies to expunge any records or files about the photojournalists. The suit remains ongoing as of January 2022 and discovery is underway.

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