U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Photojournalist pulled into secondary screening at border

Incident Details

Date of Incident
January 5, 2019
Case number
Case Status
Type of case

Border Stop

Target Nationality
US Citizenship Status of Target
U.S. citizen
Denied Entry?
Stopped Previously?
Asked for device access?
Asked intrusive questions about work?
REUTERS/Leah Millis

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer watches a group of migrants from Central America seeking asylum as they search for a place to cross over the U.S. border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, in December 2018.

— REUTERS/Leah Millis
November 20, 2019 - Update

Photojournalists sue DHS, agencies after questioned about caravan coverage

Freelance photojournalist Mark Abramson and four other photojournalists filed a lawsuit against the heads of the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. 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. At least three of the 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.

January 5, 2019

Mark Abramson, a freelance photojournalist, was pulled into secondary screening by U.S. border officials while returning from Mexico on Jan. 5, 2019.

Abramson, a U.S. citizen, told the Committee to Protect Journalists that border agents looked through his belongings, including his notebook, at the El Chaparral port of entry at San Diego, California.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection official then brought Abramson into a separate room, where he was asked to leave his bag and phone behind. The Intercept reported that in there, he was questioned for about 30 minutes about assignments and payments he received as a freelancer. The official also asked a series of questions related to the migrant caravan, including whether Abramson knew “who is stirring up stuff in the camp” or of groups helping the migrants.

Abramson told CPJ he was disturbed by the line of questions. “I’m not an informant, my job is to inform the public,” he said.

CBP did not respond to a request for comment.

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