U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Photojournalist stopped, strip searched while crossing back into U.S.

Incident Details

Date of Incident
April 30, 2021
Nogales, Arizona

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?
April 30, 2021

Photojournalist Ash Ponders, whose work has appeared in The Intercept, The New York Times and other publications, was stopped for secondary screening and searched at the U.S. border after reporting on a protest in Nogales, Mexico, on April 30, 2021.

Ponders told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that they were strip searched by an admitting officer from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Arizona at the Morley Gate in Nogales on the Arizona/Mexico border. Ponders’ phone was taken away, and they were told by a border agent that they weren’t a journalist, after being asked what they did, and responding with “photojournalist”.

“They did ask what I had been doing in Mexico, and I said I had been covering a march,” Ponders said.

While looking at their passport, an officer asked Ponders what they did for a living in Spanish. “I answered in English. And then someone came up over her shoulder and started...there was like, an immediate anger, frustration on their part.”

The officials wanted to see images from the journalist’s camera, but Ponders had already taken the memory card out of the camera.

Ponders tried to show the officer the commission for the story. “And when I tried to suggest I had a letter from my editor on my phone he yanked it out of my hand (my index finger was on the power button so as he pulled it out of my hand it locked).”

The photographer was traveling with Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux, who also was stopped.

In a back room, another officer told Ponders to put their cameras and fanny pack on a table, before frisking the photographer.

An officer questioned Ponders, who told her their city of birth, what they were doing in Nogales, and said they had traveled to and from Mexico many times.

Eventually Devereaux was released. When he asked to stay until Ponders was released, too, he was told to wait outside.

@CBPArizona should not be hassling working journalists passing through the Nogales port of entry for work,” Devereux tweeted just after being released: “I was just taken into secondary screening after being told I was “not a journalist.” @ashponders is still being detained. Going on an hour now.”

Ponders said an officer then had them remove their hat, glasses, mask, shoes and belt, and went through these while another officer watched.

“He then asked me to pull down my pants and he felt around my genitals,” Ponders said. “And then having come up very empty (I’m quite boring) he told me to pull up my pants and get dressed. I did,” said Ponders.

CBP didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Ponders said they were held at the border for between 2 ½ to three hours. An officer had to run outside to give Ponders back their passport, they said.

Ponders, who regularly crosses the U.S.-Mexico border on assignment, said being stopped at the border was a regular occurrence. “It's not every time and it's not even most of the time. But it's enough that it's something that I plan for.”

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