U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Photojournalist questioned by CBP in Detroit after being denied entry to Mexico

Incident Details

Date of Incident
January 18, 2019
Detroit, Michigan
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?
January 18, 2019

Freelance photojournalist Kitra Cahana was questioned about her journalistic work by U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities in Detroit, Michigan, on Jan. 18, 2019.

Cahana was one of many journalists covering the Central American migrant caravan’s arrival to Mexico. According to a lawsuit in which Cahana is a plaintiff, the photojournalist was flagged for secondary screening by CBP at a preclearance location in Montreal while traveling from Canada to Mexico City via Detroit on Jan. 17. Cahana was ultimately denied entry to Mexico and put on a return flight to Detroit the following day.

According to the lawsuit, when Cahana landed and passed through customs the machine printed out a ticket with a picture of her face with a large “X” on it, indicating that she had been flagged for secondary screening.

Two plainclothes officers questioned Cahana in a private room, asking about her denial of entry to Mexico and her interactions with the Mexican authorities. The officers also asked her to confirm details of an incident that took place the day after Christmas.

“This suggested to Ms. Cahana that the officers knew more about her and her journalism work in Mexico in December 2018 than Ms. Cahana had revealed during questioning by them,” the lawsuit states.

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, including Cahana. 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.”

On Nov. 20, Cahana and four other photojournalists — all of whom were questioned about their work covering the migrant caravan and documented in the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker — filed a lawsuit against the heads of DHS, CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“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 and discovery is underway.

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