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Lawsuit: US border officers questioned journalists at length

SAN DIEGO — Five American journalists sued the U.S. government Wednesday, alleging border authorities violated their First Amendment rights by inspecting their cameras and notebooks and questioning them extensively about their coverage of last year’s migrant caravan.

The lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union recounts the experiences of the freelance photographers and seeks to test the limits of U.S. officials’ broad authority to question anyone, including journalists, entering the country.

All five are U.S. citizens and are named and pictured in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security dossier of 59 people that the agency linked to the caravan, including journalists, organizers and “instigators.”

While KNSD, the NBC affiliate in San Diego, reported on the existence of the dossier in March, the journalists have never shared such detailed accounts of how they were treated by U.S. and Mexican officials.

The NBC affiliate reported Tuesday that it received the dossier from Wesley Petonak, then a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in New York, opens a window into how U.S. authorities responded to the giant caravan, which attracted President Donald Trump’s attention during the midterm election and spawned chaos in Tijuana, Mexico, including a five-hour closure of the nation’s largest border crossing on Thanksgiving weekend.

Customs and Border Protection said late Wednesday that it does not comment on pending litigation. The Justice and Homeland Security departments did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mark Abramson, a photographer working for The New York Times, said two CBP officers patted him down when he returned to the U.S. at the San Diego border crossing on Jan. 5.

They emptied his pockets and searched his bag, which contained notebooks with “confidential source material,” the names and contact information of people he encountered while working, personal reflections and receipts to be submitted to his editor for reimbursement, the lawsuit said.

After being taken to another room and patted down again, Abramson said another officer asked what was in his “book,” who was leading the caravan, whether they were for or against the U.S. government and whether he knew of any groups helping the caravan.

Bing Guan, who sold caravan photos to The Intercept, said Mexican authorities approached him Dec. 27 and took a photo of his passport picture, which others also have reported.

Two days later, he was stopped by CBP in San Diego and questioned for an hour by a plainclothes officer about whether he knew smugglers, activists or other journalists helping migrants across the border.

He was shown photos and asked to identify “instigators.” The officer walked him to his car and examined photos on his cameras, taking images of some.

“I know you’ve been around the migrant caravan,” the lawsuit quotes the officer as saying.

When Guan returned to Tijuana in August, a Mexican immigration official said an “alert” had been placed on his passport.

Go Nakamura, who has worked for The Guardian, The New York Times and Reuters, was with Guan when they crossed the border and was questioned separately along similar lines. He said he was told to share his photos and asked whether he recognized any caravan leaders in photos he was shown.

Mexican authorities told him on a stopover from Peru to New York that he had an alert on his passport.

Kitra Cahana, who covered the caravan for the Huffington Post, The New York Times and German newspaper Die Zeit, was turned around at Mexico City’s airport on Jan. 17 and had her phone confiscated before being returned to Detroit. U.S. authorities there produced a photo with an ‘X’ over her face when her passport was scanned, just as they did when she left the country, and questioned her about the caravan.

Ariana Drehsler, who was covering the caravan for United Press International and has had her work published by The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and The Wall Street Journal, was questioned extensively three times by U.S. authorities at the San Diego border crossing in December and January.

They asked to see her photos, which she didn’t share, and to identify caravan leaders. They wanted to know if word had reached migrants who were thinking of coming to the U.S.

“You’re on the ground, you’re there; we’re not,” one official is quoted as saying.

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