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Photojournalist questioned at San Ysidro border, separated from camera

January 4, 2019

On Jan. 4, 2019, freelance photojournalist Ariana Drehsler was stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border and subjected to secondary screening measures for the third time over the course of several weeks.

Drehsler had been covering the migrant caravan and seekers of asylum status in the United States. When she crossed over from Mexico on Dec. 30, 2018, she was stopped and told that her passport had been “flagged,” and she was again stopped for additional screening on Jan. 2.

“I was sent to secondary screening again,” she said of the Jan. 4 incident. While she was waiting to be questioned at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego, she said border agents chatted with her about her photography gear.

“One asked if I would show him my photos, but I declined, and he said something like, ‘Yeah, I kind of figured.’”

Unlike her two previous border stops, during which she was questioned by officials wearing civilian clothing, this time she was questioned by uniformed U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

She was patted down, and then her belongings were searched in front of her, she said. “I didn’t have my laptop because I felt paranoid doing so at that point,” referring to the two previous border stops.

“They took me into a hall and they told me to leave my bag and phone there, and they took me to another room.”

Drehsler said she felt uncomfortable being separated from her belongings.

During questioning, she said she was asked about background as a journalist and her previous work-related travels to the Middle East as well as details about the migrant caravan.

“The agents that questioned me said, ‘You’re on the ground and we’re not,’ which is why they were asking me those questions. They wanted to know what I was seeing and hearing about the new caravan and organizers.”

Drehsler said that before December 2018 she did not have any problem entering the United States when reporting from Mexico.

CBP did not immediately respond to request for comment.

— 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 Ariana Drehsler 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. Drehsler 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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