avatar
Faith Under Fire


Please Help ZNet



 

 

 

 

Source: The Intercept

The sun was beginning to set as Kaji Dousa neared the border. It was two days into 2019, and the line she was about to cross separating San Diego and Tijuana was the site of a politicized battle over the arrival of thousands of asylum-seekers playing out on televisions screens around the world. Dousa, a prominent New York City pastor, was more than a month into her latest round of border ministry, providing religious services to mostly Central American families whom the president had cast as a national security threat and federal agents had tear-gassed the previous day.

The work was tiring enough, but as Dousa made her way through the sprawling San Ysidro port of entry, a bundle of nerves sharpened her discomfort. It was her first time crossing back from Mexico alone. She promised her husband she would return before dark and that she would give him, and their 4-year-old daughter, a call when she did. With dusk already settling in, that was beginning to feel increasingly unlikely.

Dousa wasn’t wearing her clerical collar when she approached the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer on duty. The conversation was cordial, with the two making small talk until something on the man’s computer caught his eye. Suddenly, the officer’s demeanor changed. He told Dousa to come with him. The pastor was led to a lobby where other would-be border crossers were waiting. She decided she might need the collar after all. She asked the official who seemed to be in charge why she was there. The man told her to sit down and suggested she look up what “secondary” inspection meant. When Dousa took a seat and pulled out her phone, the officer barked at her to put it away.

As travelers trickled in and out of the room, Dousa remained. Eventually, a new CBP official arrived. He stood out from the others, a Black man in khaki pants and a polo instead of the dark uniforms of the agency’s mostly white and Latino officers. Dousa didn’t know it at the time, but the officer’s name was Jeremy Burnett, and he was a veteran interviewer in a secretive CBP counterterrorism unit. He had been called up specifically for her interview.

Burnett led Dousa to a warren of low-walled cubicles, where they each took a seat. His vibe suggested that he knew what he was doing, Dousa thought. “He seemed, for lack of a better word, smarter than your typical sort of person at the front end of things,” she told The Intercept. “He was savvier.”

The officer began with the basics: where Dousa was from, how many times she had crossed the border. Occasionally he appeared to read from his computer screen. Burnett then asked the pastor about her work in Mexico, questioning whether she was coaching migrants to cross the border illegally. She told him that she was not, that she was providing ministry to people in need. She and her colleagues did advise asylum-seekers how to efficiently relay their stories in official interviews, Dousa explained, a legal activity for which government officials like Burnett should be grateful because it made their lives easier. Burnett seemed satisfied with the answer; Dousa sensed an opening in the conversation. She told him that in New York she regularly met with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials as part of her work in undocumented communities. She understood that things were different now, she said, under the current administration, and that sometimes that was rough on people in his position. Dousa told the officer that she hoped he was showing kindness and compassion to the people he met. Burnett, she thought, seemed to be listening.

Just then, Burnett’s partner, Allen Tamayo, poked his head over the low partition separating the cubicles. He was taking notes the whole time, Dousa realized. The heart-to-heart she was having with Burnett ended. She hoped he would remember it forever. Burnett handed the pastor back her travel documents and told her she was free to leave. Dousa left her business card with the counterterrorism officers and told them to call anytime if she needed to clear anything up.

Burnett would later recall his questioning in sworn testimony before a federal court. “I felt like she was being truthful in the interview,” he said. “I didn’t feel like she was being deceiving to me.” Dousa’s was one of many interviews Burnett’s Tactical Terrorism Response Team was doing at the time. The push to probe came not from the officers but from a special task force of Border Patrol agents, Homeland Security investigators, and FBI agents, cobbled together in response to the migrant caravans — and then-President Donald Trump’s ensuing speeches — that were all over the news. The interviews were one spoke in a wider wheel of surveillance targeting dozens of immigration attorneys, asylum advocates, and journalists on the border — most of whom were singled out without evidence that they had committed a crime, let alone a formal investigation or prosecution for anything remotely as serious as terrorism.

Throughout her interview, Dousa tried her best to stay cool. Outside the port building, her anxiety came crashing down. Her body shook as she dialed her husband’s number. The line rang without answer. The pastor steeled herself and continued on alone.

A Microphone in the Confessional

A quiet drama unfolding at the intersection of faith, surveillance, and borders, Kaji Dousa’s experience that night in San Diego began a legal fight that continues to this day. As she would later learn, the pastor was one of at least 51 U.S. citizens who were targeted and tracked by their own government for their proximity to asylum-seekers in late 2018 and early 2019.

Dousa is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit alleging that the border dragnet violated her constitutional rights as a faith leader ministering to migrants by placing her on a secret blacklist, revoking her expedited border-crossing privileges, and calling on Mexican law enforcement to detain her. Through her litigation, filed in the Southern District of California, the pastor and her lawyers have unearthed substantial evidence of reckless intelligence sharing between authorities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico divide.

More than 1,000 pages of recently unsealed testimony from U.S. officials deposed in the case and internal CBP communications shared with The Intercept provide an inside look at “Operation Secure Line”: a secretive, politicized, international law enforcement effort carried out during the peak of Trump-era caravan mania. The materials reveal an effort that was chaotic, unfocused, and dangerous for the people caught in its crosshairs. The testimony and communications add names, dates, and context to a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s investigation that was published in September. While the DHS watchdog found significant flaws in the implementation of Operation Secure Line, evidence in Dousa’s case suggests that the problems went deeper than the report indicated. Her case points to potential gaps in the office’s investigation, and Dousa’s legal team alleges that a senior CBP official at the center of the operation at best misled and at worst lied when he told the court that the pastor’s travel privileges were not affected by the surveillance program. The court cited his testimony as reason not to reinstate Dousa’s travel privileges — an issue that is the subject of ongoing litigation.

As recently as late last year, the officials involved in Dousa’s ordeal and the wider caravan surveillance episode, including those at the center of the most concerning parts of the inspector general’s report, remained on the job. In some cases, their responsibilities at the border expanded and their stature at CBP grew. The supervisor who oversaw San Diego’s ports while asylum advocates and journalists were routinely being detained and questioned, for example, is now one of CBP’s top officials in Washington, D.C., overseeing a force of 31,000 uniformed and nonuniformed personnel and managing the agency’s $6.5 billion budget for operations nationwide. Citing the ongoing nature of Dousa’s case, CBP declined to answer any questions for this article, including whether the agency implemented any policy changes following the inspector general’s report or disciplined any officials for conduct related to Operation Secure Line.

Under Trump, humanitarian aid providers and immigration activists faced federal prosecutions in the courts and snatch-and-grab deportations on the streets. For Dousa, the core harm of her experience was the threat that government surveillance poses to a pastor like her; it’s the reason she and her lawyers have argued that, in addition to the First Amendment’s prohibition on religious discrimination and retaliation, Dousa’s rights were also violated under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Typically known for its use as a defense for conservative causes, RFRA has twice been used in recent years to successfully defend spiritually rooted border advocacy in federal court: first, in the case of Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid provider who faced 20 years in prison for providing food, water, and shelter to migrants crossing the deadliest stretch of the Sonoran Desert; and second, in the case of Amber Ortega, a member of the Hia Ced O’odham tribe, who was arrested, strip searched, and held incommunicado in a for-profit jail for protesting border wall construction on sacred O’odham land in southern Arizona. Ministering to migrants is not just a part of Dousa’s job, her lawsuit argues. It’s also her religious calling, and it too is protected under the law.

Engaging in know-your-rights trainings, spiritual counsel, or journalism are among the most legally protected acts one can partake in, argued Brian Griffey, senior researcher at Amnesty International. Yet those are the exact activities the state zeroed in on in the cases of Dousa and others — all without any consequences.

“They were functioning like an intelligence agency that was assembling invasive dossiers on people who had no clear instance of violating the law.”

In 2019, Griffey authored a report examining the Trump administration’s “unlawful and politically motivated campaign” of targeting border activists, particularly through Operation Secure Line. Following its publication, he received a tranche of DHS documents that provided an even deeper look at the president’s controversial border initiative. The documents, which have not been previously reported upon, reveal how U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies used aerial surveillance, social media monitoring, and informants to construct detailed portraits of the migrant caravans as they moved through Mexico, documenting populations in need of medical care and under lethal threats from Mexican organized crime. Rather than preparing for their evident needs and accommodating their right to seek refuge, Griffey noted, U.S. officials devoted their time and resources to tracking journalists, immigration lawyers, and activists.

“They were no longer conducting border security,” Griffey told The Intercept. “They were functioning like an intelligence agency that was assembling invasive dossiers on people who had no clear instance of violating the law.”

The Secure Line officials who organized these efforts have faced no known repercussions, Griffey noted. “An accurate approximation would be zero accountability,” he said. Perhaps most concerning, he added, is the fact that the conditions that drove asylum-seekers and advocates like Dousa to the border in 2018 remain the same in 2022: Thanks to successively harsher restrictions in the U.S., simply beginning an asylum case at the border is next impossible without serious legal and moral support. “The Biden administration has abandoned a lot of its promises to lift these unlawful Trump policies,” he said. “It continues to implement them to this day.”

When her surveillance first became public, Dousa’s ability to assure people that they could unburden their deepest traumas and sins to her was rattled to its core.

When her surveillance first became public in 2019, Dousa argues in her lawsuit, her ability to assure people that they could unburden their deepest traumas and sins to her was rattled to its core. “I wasn’t sure that the surveillance didn’t include listening in on conversations,” she said. Her entire ministry began to change, as Dousa encouraged parishioners to download encrypted messaging apps to communicate with her. “I would have to advise people, ‘I’m not so sure that this conversation will be completely private,’ or I would have to meet them in places that I felt would be safer,” she said. Worried that whatever was happening behind the scenes at the Department of Homeland Security could affect their cases, Dousa advised undocumented people pursuing a green card to find spiritual support elsewhere.

“Worship changed significantly,” Dousa said. As one congregant told her at the time, it felt as though “they put a microphone in the confessional.”

Blast Radius

A fusion of faith and activism runs in Kaji Dousa’s family. Her grandfather, Edwin Edmonds, was a renowned figure in the United Church of Christ, who devoted much his life to the civil rights movement and exchanged letters with Martin Luther King Jr. Her mother was an organizer and communications director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the movement’s most important organizations, which weathered its own heavy government surveillance through the 1960s. “I just grew up with granddad both of course preaching on Sundays, but also always having community meetings in the house,” Dousa said.

The pastor’s first brush with the homeland security state came nearly 3,000 miles from the border, in New York City, years before the caravans arrived in Tijuana and San Diego. Early in the Obama administration, a regular at Dousa’s Manhattan church was placed in deportation proceedings. Her efforts to save the man from removal led her to the New Sanctuary Coalition, one of the city’s leading immigrant rights organizations. Bit by bit, Dousa learned about the complex world of immigration enforcement, detention, and deportation. For her, the realities of that system — which routinely involves the capture, caging, and state-sanctioned exile of poor people— was fundamentally at odds with the doctrine of “imago dei,” the belief at the heart of her faith, which holds that every human being bears the image of God. To Dousa, deporting an undocumented mother or father in Queens or Brooklyn was no different than deporting Christ himself, the son of God and a refugee.

Dousa threw herself into work with New Sanctuary and soon became co-chair of the organization.

Her immigration experience led her to “The Table,” a UCC church in La Mesa, California, 40 miles north of Tijuana, where she was senior minister from 2013 through 2016. Dousa was on the border as tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children and families arrived seeking asylum in 2014. While anti-immigrant protesters chanting “go home” blocked buses carrying migrant children, she and her congregants brought supplies to Mexican migrant shelters and connected Central American kids with families in the U.S. In November 2016, Dousa returned to New York to serve as senior pastor at the Park Avenue Christian Church, becoming the first woman to lead the congregation since its founding in 1810. She arrived just in time for the election of Donald Trump, a man who campaigned on vows to seal the border and spent his first week in office signing executive orders banning travelers from Muslim countries and expanding ICE’s enforcement priorities to include virtually every undocumented immigrant in the country.

In June 2017, Border Patrol agents raided a humanitarian aid station in the Arizona desert run by No More Deaths, a faith-based organization born from the same 1980s immigrant rights movement that inspired Dousa’s New Sanctuary Coalition in NYC. With rifle-toting agents on the ground and helicopters hovering above, the operation signaled that the blast radius of Trump’s immigration crackdown would be wide, and that it would include the work of advocates as well. In the fall and winter of that year, members of New Sanctuary began noticing unmarked vehicles with tinted windows lurking outside Judson Memorial Church, their center of operations in lower Manhattan, and the homes of the coalition’s organizers. On January 3, 2018, ICE arrested Jean Montrevil, one of the group’s leading figures, outside of his home in Queens, months before his regularly scheduled check-in with the agency. Within days, Montrevil, a father of four who had lived in the U.S. for more than three decades, was deported to Haiti. One week later, ICE made an even more provocative move, taking into custody Ravi Ragbir, Dousa’s co-chair at New Sanctuary and then-executive director of the organization, at a routine check-in. In the protest that followed, New York City police arrested 18 people, including two city council members. (Following lawsuits alleging that they were targeted for their activism, both Montrevil and Ragbir were granted three years of deferred action in their immigration cases; Montrevil was reunited with his family in the U.S. in December.)

Through the arrests, Dousa came into increasingly close contact with the top brass at ICE’s New York City office. In the lawsuit she would file years later, she describes a meeting she had with Scott Mechkowski, ICE’s deputy field office director for New York at the time, shortly before Montrevil’s deportation. According to the pastor, Mechkowski spent much of the conversation lamenting ICE’s depiction in the press, before telling her: “I know exactly how to find you. You’re on the web. You’re all over the documents that I have. … Trust me, I know your network just as good as you do.” ICE did not respond to a request for comment on the deputy director’s remarks.

For Dousa, Mechkowski’s words came off like threat. “It was so scary,” the pastor said. “I was actually terrified for the whole conversation.” To her, it was clearest sign yet of a targeted effort to monitor and intimidate immigrant rights advocates; it wouldn’t be the last.

Secure the Line

While Dousa and New Sanctuary were navigating ICE surveillance and arrests in New York, pressure on the border was mounting.

In spring of 2018, the first of two large sets of caravans of mostly Central American asylum-seekers began arriving in border cities in northern Mexico. While migrant caravans through Mexico were not unheard of, past iterations were largely convened to highlight the dangers that migrants traversing the country routinely face — including extortion, robbery, assault, rape, mass murder, and criminal impunity — and they often ended in Mexico City.

As a safety-in-numbers strategy, the 2018 caravans were much larger than their predecessors and went all the way to the border itself. In an administration where border policy was designed by Stephen Miller, a man who took his talking points from white nationalist literature predicting the fall of civilization at the hands of migrant hordes, the caravans provided a pretext to ratchet up the immigration crackdown even further, including through the forced separation of thousands of children from their parents. By the fall, caravan coverage was dominating Fox News and the mind of the president, who threatened to use the military to seal the border. In late October, David Shaw, then-Special Agent in Charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations office in San Diego, wrote a message to his staff about DHS deploying teams to Central America and Mexico City and the possibility of 500 new agents boarding planes to the Southwest. “There is not a defined mission for them nor do we know exactly where they would be going,” he said, adding, “DC throwing around idea of a ‘nuclear option’ to close the border if the caravan comes near.”

With the midterm elections in full swing, DHS and the Pentagon announced the launch of “Operation Faithful Patriot,” a deployment of 5,000 solders to the southern border, on November 6, 2018. The name of the initiative was later changed to “Operation Secure Line.” With support from ICE’s HSI wing and the FBI, CBP created an “Emergency Operations Center” in San Diego to coordinate the mission. The Border Patrol’s San Diego-based Foreign Operations Branch liaised with authorities on the Mexican side of the border. Both countries had staff working around the clock monitoring the caravans’ progress, checking in with informants, and combing through social media to identify potential organizers of the exodus.

More than three years later, depositions in Dousa’s lawsuit reveal a messy operation. Throughout Secure Line, the CBP official responsible for San Diego’s ports was Pete Flores. In December, Flores was promoted to executive assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Field Operations, the main component of the agency. Among other things, his duties include overseeing the National Targeting Center, a quasi-intelligence office focused on identifying national security threats at the border. Miguel Haro, the deputy section chief of the Emergency Operations Center, was one of several CBP officers who filed reports to Flores and other senior officials. According to the testimony Haro gave in Dousa’s case in August, the center’s job was to create “daily” presentations for CBP leadership, “informing on demonstrations and trying to identify organizers for the caravan.” Haro could not recall ever receiving training on exactly how to do this. Nonetheless, when individuals who could be caravan organizers were identified, he and his colleagues placed “lookouts” on their internal CBP files.

When those individuals attempted a border crossing, Haro often called up Burnett’s Tactical Terrorism Response Team to interview them. TTRT officers were instructed to ask the targets whether they were coaching migrants to cross the border illegally. According to the inspector general’s report released last year, “Two TTRT officers who conducted caravan-related interviews did not believe there was a need to interview many of those individuals multiple times.” One added that the counterterrorism team “did not obtain any valuable information during the follow-up interviews.” A third said “he called EOC officials on multiple occasions to ask them to remove lookouts, but they did not do so.” Burnett, the veteran CBP counterterrorism officer who interviewed Dousa, said in his deposition that the pressure from the Emergency Operations Center was not well received. “The team wasn’t interested in it,” he testified. “We were instructed by our management or chain of command to do it.”

In a briefing on November 20, 2018, Haro’s Emergency Operations Center painted a messy picture of the situation in Tijuana-San Diego area. The center had received information from the Mexican Army that “approximately 1000 migrants” were “planning to rush the Port of Entry.” EOC officials also noted that “cartels in Tijuana are threating [sic] the migrants to go back or they will be killed.” Shaw, the special agent in charge at Homeland Security Investigations, ordered his agents to begin working their sources. “We would like to compile a list of credible information obtained from any Confidential Informants (CIs) and/or Sources of Information (SOIs) regarding the incoming migrant caravans and/or cartel actions related to the caravans,” he wrote in an email following the briefing.

Dousa knew none of these behind-the-scenes details when she stepped off her plane at the San Diego airport on the night of November 26, 2018. The reason for her arrival was the “Sanctuary Caravan,” a multidenominational mission of faith leaders who came to provide ministry and support to asylum-seekers camped out in Tijuana. Over the course of 40 days and 40 nights, Dousa and her fellow clergy members accompanied asylum-seekers to the port and joined them in prayer. “I was meeting with migrants, praying with them,” Dousa said. “I officiated for several marriages.” The marriage ceremonies were spiritual affairs, she said, ritual blessings for couples at the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new one, not state-licensed or official in any capacity.

On her first full day on the border, Dousa visited a bridge overlooking the Tijuana River. The day before the pastor arrived, hundreds of migrants had marched on San Diego’s ports to protest a lack of asylum access, eventually congregating in the dried-out riverbed separating the two nations. Though some migrants in the group threw rocks, most were simply caught in the middle of what happened next, as CBP officers lobbed tear gas and rubber bullets into Mexico to disperse the crowd. Women with small children ran for cover as the choking clouds descended. Mexican authorities arrested nearly 40 people on charges of forcibly attempting to enter the U.S.

As asylum-seekers gathered in Tijuana’s streets and shelters in the winter of 2018, a view hardened within the homeland security apparatus that the people on the other side of the border wall were a magnet for criminality. By November 29, U.S. and Mexican officials were on high alert. At a meeting with local stakeholders — including San Diego police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and the fire department — the EOC reported that Mexican drones were hovering above shelters in Tijuana, while homeland security aircraft were providing aerial surveillance from the U.S. side. The situation on the ground was desperate. More than 6,000 migrants were living in and around a Tijuana stadium, nearly double the facility’s capacity, among them more than 1,000 children. Local medical officials reported migrants with a range of needs, from chickenpox and lice to tuberculosis and HIV.

Several demonstrations were planned that day, the EOC reported in a 21-page briefing, including a hunger strike and a march of women and children. The EOC warned that “an unknown number of” MS-13 gang members had entered Tijuana with the caravan with plans to penetrate the border. Alongside the shaky intelligence on a threat from Salvadoran gangsters, were the biographical details of 10 “caravan organizers.” Many were associated with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which the briefing described as “an immigration rights group” that “builds shelters for refugees on the trek north to the Mexico/American border and provide legal counsel to them.”

In the end, the most violent acts associated with the caravan were directed not at the border but at the people hoping to cross it. In late December, 16-year-old Jorge Alexander Ruiz and 17-year-old Jasson Ricardo Acuña Polanco, both Honduran asylum-seekers, were lured from a youth shelter in Tijuana and brutally murdered.

At the time, the organization Human Rights First had documented more than 630 cases of asylum-seekers and migrants being murdered, raped, tortured, kidnapped, or assaulted as a result of U.S. “turn-back” policies at the border. Today, that number stands at more than 10,200, with the vast majority of the violence — more than 8,700 cases and counting — documented under the Biden administration.

Surveillance in Bloom

In the predawn hours of January 1, 2019, while much of the country was still ringing in the new year, CBP again fired chemical agents over the San Diego-Tijuana border. Witnesses on the ground that night reported both that the gassing was unprovoked, which contradicted statements CBP made to the press, and that activists from the U.S. were helping migrants scale the border fence.

Within CBP, a belief that activists with U.S. passports were involved in illegal border crossings at best and plotting violent incursions at worst, had already taken root when Dousa first set foot on the border. By the time she crossed the line on January 2, less than 24 hours after the second gassing, it was in full bloom.

By that point, Miguel Haro had already added the pastor to a photo lineup in a growing volume of caravan-related intelligence documents. In his deposition, he explained that Dousa was not suspected of instigating a violent rush on the border. Instead, she had come to his attention through a string of secondhand information that Haro made minimal efforts to verify or substantiate.

On December 2, Haro received an email from the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector Intelligence Unit reporting that a woman in the caravan who had been taken into custody had made a comment about the presence of U.S. pastors at a wedding in Tijuana. The woman didn’t have any names, but she did have a business card. The name on the card read Kaji Dousa. Haro looked her up online. The following morning, he emailed colleagues to report that while the woman was unable to identify Dousa by name, she “did describe a woman fitting the description of Dousa” at the wedding. Haro included a link to an article by Gothamist, a New York City news website, describing Dousa’s work with the Sanctuary Caravan. “You can see a woman who resembles her in the picture from the article,” he wrote. On December 5, Haro’s colleague, Nicolas Gonzalez Jr., reported that he had “suspended” Dousa’s membership in the expedited travel program known as “Global Access.”

Four days later, Haro received another email from the Border Patrol. The woman in custody had identified Dousa in a photo lineup as present at the wedding and had in her possession a fraudulent marriage certificate. “The certificate displays Kanji [sic] Dousa’s name as one of the pastors present,” the agent said. According to filings in Dousa’s lawsuit, Haro never sought to interview the woman in custody to substantiate her allegation; as he made clear in his deposition, despite his title as deputy section chief of the EOC and the intelligence access that came with the position, Haro possessed neither the training nor the legal authority to conduct criminal investigations. He wasn’t sure the woman’s claim was evidence that Dousa committed a crime, but he decided the pastor would remain in an internal homeland security database as a “possible coordinator” of the caravans anyway. When asked why, he testified, “I didn’t give it much thought.”

If Dousa came to the border to participate in some sort of “cross-border-marriage-fraud-asylum” scheme, she did a poor job hiding it. Following the arrival of the Sanctuary Caravan in late November, Al Otro Lado, one of the San Diego-Tijuana area’s leading immigrant rights organizations, announced on Facebook and in a press conference that clergy were in town and available to officiate wedding ceremonies. The Gothamist article Haro found also made clear that members of the Sanctuary Caravan were presiding over wedding ceremonies. “It wasn’t like it was a state-licensed marriage,” Dousa said. Few spiritual acts are more squarely in line with protected religious activity than presiding over a wedding, she argued: “By definition, I got investigated by the government for offering the ritual of marriage to migrants.”

Had CBP been truly invested in the fraudulent marriage angle, one would expect the matter to feature prominently in Dousa’s interview with the Tactical Terrorism Response Team. Burnett, in his deposition, however, could not recall the subject ever coming up when Haro called upon TTRT to interview the pastor. His partner, Allen Tamayo, remembered the issue having some relationship to Dousa’s file, but once the three sat down, the officers decided not to bring it up. “It didn’t seem necessary,” Tamayo testified. “She was a very nice person. She was answering all our questions.” He added: “I felt like if we asked that question, we were going to lose rapport with Ms. Dousa.”

Were things to go differently, Dousa could have walked out of her interview that night never knowing what unit the men who questioned her belonged to, or how she landed on their radar. Instead, the startling scope of Operation Secure Line would soon explode into public view, beginning one of the most disturbing episodes in the pastor’s life.

A Blacklist Exposed

The dam holding back evidence of CBP’s caravan surveillance began to break on February 1, 2019, when two top attorneys at Al Otro Lado were denied entry into Mexico. The following week, The Intercept published an investigation based on interviews with nearly 20 sources working on caravan-related issues in the San Diego-Tijuana area, including the Otro Lado lawyers, photojournalists, and asylum advocates. The sources described being shackled to benches in U.S. detention cells for hours at a time; being forced to turn over their notes, cameras, and phones; and being shown lineups of suspected caravan organizers and asked to divulge what they knew.

The sources’ claims were confirmed the following month, when a NBC San Diego affiliate published a blockbuster report based on leaked Secure Line documents showing that CBP, ICE, and FBI officials in San Diego had created a blacklist of caravan-related targets. The source of the leak was a veteran special agent in the HSI-San Diego office, who later told NBC that he raised civil liberties concerns with his supervisors when he first came across the materials, only to be told that the surveillance was “standard practice.” The documents he leaked included the photo lineups of suspected caravan organizers. Among the images in the files was a photo of Dousa with a large yellow “X” over her face. Her caravan “role” was “associate,” the document said. Her status in SENTRI, the CBP program for expedited processing at border crossings, was “revoked.”

The revelations made national headlines, sparking bipartisan demands for answers. For the first time, Dousa realized that her ordeal was part of a much wider program. “Everything changed after that,” she said. Filing suit against CBP and other elements of DHS in July 2019, Dousa called upon a federal judge to declare that the government violated her rights under the First Amendment and RFRA, order a cessation to any continued monitoring or surveillance, and reinstate her travel privileges. Government lawyers argued in a motion to dismiss that Dousa’s border crossing privileges were unaffected by her inclusion in the files, and that her assertions that she was “being monitored and targeted by CBP due to the exercise of her First Amendment rights and religion” were “based on speculation, hearsay, and incidents involving other people.”

Shortly after filing her complaint, Dousa sought an injunction against the government and requested internal records related to her questioning. She asked the court to order the government to restore her SENTRI privileges and refrain “from taking any future adverse action against” her “based on her protected expression, association, or religious exercise.” Government lawyers described Dousa’s request for records as “a colossal burden” and called up Saro Oliveri, a senior CBP official responsible for the Trusted Traveler Programs in San Diego and cross-border coordination with authorities in Mexico, in response.

In September 2019, just eight months after Dousa’s questioning, Oliveri said in a sworn declaration that the pastor’s travel privileges had “never been revoked or suspended” and that he queried an internal CBP database to check. Chief U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns granted Dousa’s records request two months later, resulting in a limited release of records, but in January 2020 denied her injunction request based largely on Oliveri’s testimony.

If CBP revoked Dousa’s privileges and she could show that the revocation was related to activity protected under the First Amendment, Burns wrote, the court would have “no problem” issuing an injunction — but as Oliveri’s testimony indicated, the revocation never happened.

Despite the setback, Dousa pressed on. In January 2021, her lawyers obtained a December 2018 email chain in which Haro circulated a photo of Dousa. The subject line read: “SENTRI poss caravan organizer.” In the message, Haro wrote, “we would like to have her interviewed to see if she is helping the coordinate the caravan in Tijuana.” The deputy EOC chief told his colleagues that Dousa’s “continued enrollment” in the program was up to their “discretion.” He followed up with the email that included the Gothamist article, adding that Border Patrol had discovered “various pictures of Kaji S. Dousa from the internet,” as well as information from her church. In a third email, Haro asked if CBP was “in a holding pattern” until Dousa could be interviewed by TTRT. It was then that Haro received the email from Nicolas Gonzalez Jr. informing him that Dousa’s travel privileges were suspended. “Today I suspended her Global access as well,” Gonzalez wrote.

Oliveri was copied on each of the emails. In fact, Oliveri himself wrote emails regarding Dousa’s travel privileges. One week after Gonzalez reported Dousa’s suspension, Oliveri sent a three-word message to Haro that read: “We revoked her.”

The communications raised major questions about the truthfulness of Oliveri’s declaration and the guidance he received from government lawyers beforehand. In June, Dousa’s lawyers got the opportunity to ask those questions themselves, when Oliveri, by that point a branch chief at the Otay Mesa port of entry overseeing the Trusted Traveler Programs, sat for a deposition in San Diego. The senior CBP official said that the email he sent was incorrect — where that information came from, he could not recall — and that the statement he provided to the court was accurate.

“This is just an e-mail,” Oliveri testified. “It’s nothing that was official. I mean the record that I stated in my declaration was official records from the database under current status.” He added: “We could have been talking about someone else or mistaken.” Oliveri disagreed that his email was relevant to Dousa’s litigation and told the court that he forgot who directed him to query CBP databases for information pertinent to the case.

Oliveri was also asked about an unencrypted email he sent to a Mexican immigration official on December 10, 2018, which featured the names, birthdates, and nationalities of 24 caravan “organizers/instigators.” Among them were 14 U.S. citizens, including Dousa. “Most of these people are United States citizens, and it’s highly likely that they lack the proper documentation to be in Mexico,” Oliveri told his Mexican counterpart at the time. “CBP wishes to interview them all and respectfully requests that [Mexican Immigration] deny them entry into Mexico. If located, please return them to the United States so that CBP can proceed with their interview.”

Though Oliveri acknowledged that the request was highly unusual — he testified that he had never made one before — he claimed he forgot who had directed him to send it, where the names he sent came from, and when they were put together or why. When asked what basis he had to assert to a foreign government that the U.S. citizens on his list had no authority to be in the country and that they be stopped by law enforcement as a result, he replied: “What basis? I don’t know.”

“We came up with the language pretty quick,” Oliveri testified. “Being with the liaison unit, I knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere.” He added: “The Mexican government wasn’t going to take any action on this. … They’re not very proactive.”

Dousa’s legal team deposed two other CBP officials involved in her case over the summer of 2021. In July, they interviewed Gonzalez Jr., the official who reported suspending the pastor’s trusted traveler status. “In this case I used the wrong word,” he testified. “She was never revoked.” The lawyers deposed Haro the following month. They read him an email he wrote that said, throughout Secure Line, the EOC’s intelligence group’s job was to “identify any individuals involved in instigating violence within the caravan in addition to collecting intelligence on known instigators.” Haro acknowledged that his responsibilities included selecting individuals who could fit those descriptions for interviews, that there was never evidence that Dousa did, and that he selected her anyway. When asked if it was possible for individuals like Dousa to be cleared by CBP of any suspicion, he testified: “I guess it could be possible. I’m not — I’m not sure, though.”

Throughout the deposition and discovery process, Dousa had a limited window into her case. Owing to an agreement between the lawyers on both sides, evidence, such as the blacklist Oliveri sent to Mexico, was temporarily sealed from her view, as were the transcripts of the depositions.

Dousa was permitted to attend the interviews with CBP officials, and she did — “I wanted them to have to face me and see that I’m a real human,” she said — but she was asked to leave the room when subjects deemed sensitive by law enforcement were discussed. Oliveri’s confirmation that he put a target on the pastor’s head for Mexican law enforcement was one of those moments.

The Report

While Dousa’s lawyers were gathering testimony from CBP officials last summer, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office was quietly wrapping up its own investigation into Operation Secure Line. On September 21, the results of that investigation were made public.

The inspector general found that while CBP “had legitimate reasons for placing lookouts on U.S. journalists, attorneys, and others suspected of organizing or being associated with the migrant caravan,” many officials were “unaware” of the policies for adding and removing those flags; the policies have not been updated since 1990. The office found that nearly half — 25 of 51 — of the Secure Line lookouts “were on people for whom there was no evidence of direct involvement in illegal activity.”

With CBP offering “little guidance and few restrictions,” the report described one instance in which 15 U.S. citizens were given lookouts for having crossed the border with, or being connected on social media to, an individual whom the agency suspected of plotting violence. “CBP had no information to suggest these 15 individuals might be involved in planning violence or were present at one of the incursions,” the report said. In another case, CBP learned that a suspected caravan organizer had crossed the border in a particular car. “The EOC placed lookouts not only on the owner of that vehicle but also on someone who crossed the border with the vehicle owner one time, 9 months earlier, well before the migrant caravan started traveling towards the United States.”

The inspector general attributed these events less to malice and more to a dangerous mix of unregulated power and incompetence. “We did not find that CBP placed lookouts to retaliate against U.S. citizens for performing lawful work related to the migrant caravan,” the report said. “To the contrary, witnesses told us, and contemporaneous emails and documents corroborated, CBP placed lookouts to gain information about suspected illegal activity and then generally sought information consistent with that purpose during the resulting interviews.”

The report reserved its harshest criticism for the ways CBP officials handled the sensitive private information of U.S. citizens, Dousa included, and documented moments in which those officials either withheld information from, or misled, the inspector general’s investigators. One official — identified as “EOC Official 1,” who was said to have “placed more caravan-related lookouts than anyone else and was in regular contact with the TTRT throughout Operation Secure Line” — told investigators that many of the U.S. citizens who were flagged did not need to be interviewed multiple times. The official said that they personally accessed CBP databases to remove their lookouts. The inspector general accessed those systems to substantiate the claims and found them to be untrue. Presented with this information, the official insisted that they attempted to remove the lookouts and “speculated that a technical glitch may have prevented that from happening.” The report “confirmed that no such glitch occurred.” Instead, investigators found that 18 of the 20 lookouts that the official placed that resulted in secondary inspections were not removed.

In the case of Oliveri, who is not named in the report but is clearly identifiable as “FOB Official 1,” referencing the Foreign Operations Branch, the inspector general focused on the information on U.S. citizens that he shared with Mexican law enforcement. The report noted that “despite the constitutional implications of restricting international travel, CBP has no policies, procedures, guidance, or training that specifically address asking or advising foreign countries to deny entry to Americans.” Still, while CBP may restrict a citizen’s international travel rights in certain circumstances, the agency “could not articulate any genuine basis” for the list Oliveri sent to Mexico and “in fact later admitted that the reasons provided to Mexico were not true.” The report added: “CBP officials at various levels who knew of the request, including the official who oversaw CBP’s entire regional response to the migrant caravan, denied or minimized their involvement and told us the request was neither typical nor appropriate.”

At first, Oliveri, whose assumed truthfulness was the basis for the injunction denial in Dousa’s case, told the inspector general that he never made the request to Mexico. He continued the denial, the report said, until the investigators showed him his own email. According to the report, Oliveri “could not recall anything about most of the 24 individuals, other than he did not think they were involved in illegal activity.” In his email to Mexican law enforcement, Oliveri claimed the U.S. had information indicating that Dousa and the other Americans on the list did not have legal authority to be in Mexico. In his interview with DHS investigators, he admitted that was not true. According to the report, “CBP had ‘no knowledge of whether they did or didn’t have documentation’ when he sent the request.”

Oliveri was not solely responsible for the creation and dissemination of the list. On the contrary, investigators found that he coordinated with at least two officials in the EOC, including one who provided the “target list” that the request was based on. When questioned by investigators, that official “disclaimed involvement with the request” and said Oliveri shouldn’t have sent it, but then “could not explain” why they sent him targets in the first place. In fact, investigators found that the official forwarded Oliveri’s request to their supervisor. The supervisor told investigators that they did not recall seeing the request and “could not explain” why their subordinate sent it. Investigators, however, uncovered “contemporaneous emails” showing that just hours after Oliveri sent the request, the supervisor had asked if a list of U.S. citizens was given to Mexico “to deny them entry into Mexico,” stating that he had spoken to Oliveri about the matter.

In an interview, the supervisor explained that while they could not recall the episode, they probably spoke to Oliveri because they were concerned about what he had done. As the supervisor noted, those rare requests, normally reserved for cases where “an American is wanted by Mexican law enforcement relating to serious concerns,” should be routed through embassies and consulates. The inspector general’s report, however, identified “another possible explanation” for the follow up: that the supervisor ordered the request and was making sure Oliveri carried it out. “If someone was truly concerned about this request, we would expect him to recall asking about the request, express his concern or disapproval in writing, admonish [Oliveri] for sending the request, or take corrective action,” the report said. “We did not find any evidence of such actions.”

Oliveri’s haphazard request to a foreign security service was not an isolated incident. The inspector general identified three CBP officials in the Foreign Operations Branch of the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector who shared the personal identifying information of U.S. citizens with Mexican authorities on at least eight occasions. What, precisely, these officials asked for is unclear because, as the investigators found, CBP personnel made a habit of sharing information with Mexican officials in large WhatsApp groups, whose members sometimes numbered in the hundreds, and then deleting their messages afterward.

In one case, an FOB official used his work email to send an unencrypted message that included the private information of six U.S. citizens to a Mexican intelligence official’s Yahoo account. The official told investigators that the message was necessary to prevent “a very serious” event from occurring in the future, but their own email showed that was untrue. That same official also admitted sending the document with private information to their own personal Gmail account — “He could not tell us why he did this,” investigators noted — along with images of several caravan associates’ driver’s licenses. Another CBP official, who “repeatedly denied” having shared information about U.S. citizens with Mexico, was shown to have “retroactively attempted to seek approval from his then-supervisor” for having done that very thing. The inspector general’s office identified a fourth CBP official, working outside the FOB in the agency’s Virginia-based National Targeting Center, who entered into an “internal” and “non-binding” agreement with Mexico’s national intelligence office to share information on “organizers, inciters, and supporters of the migrant caravans.” According to the report, the official shared names, photographs, and other personal identifying information of U.S. citizens on at least five occasions.

In none of these cases were the CBP officials in question authorized to do what they were doing.

In none of these cases were the CBP officials in question authorized to do what they were doing. In the San Diego sector, sharing information on U.S. citizens requires three levels of written approval, the inspector general’s report noted. That never happened. The National Targeting Center official, meanwhile, claimed to have received verbal approval from a supervisor, but such approval requires a written request beforehand, and the investigators found no evidence those requests were ever sent. “All four CBP officials who sent information to Mexican officials about Americans told us they communicated with their Mexican counterparts using WhatsApp,” the report said. “None of the four officials retained all their relevant WhatsApp messages.”

This was a serious problem, considering CBP officials’ sudden bouts of apparent amnesia when speaking with congressionally mandated oversight investigators. As the inspector general’s report noted, “the CBP officials’ inability to recall key details about their communications with Mexican officials, or in some cases, whether they even shared information about U.S. citizens with Mexican officials, raises questions about whether there were other instances of Mexican and CBP officials’ sharing information about American caravan associates.”

The Pastor Fires Back

By late September, Dousa’s lawyers were deep into drafting a motion for official sanctions in the pastor’s case based on the discrepancies in Oliveri’s statements. They knew the inspector general was investigating Operation Secure Line, but nobody knew when the official conclusions would drop. On the day they planned to file, the report went up online. “It so much confirmed what we had been saying in the lawsuit,” Dousa said. The pastor and her team decided to stop what they were doing and mine the materials for evidence to bolster their case.

“Their whole intelligence structure is really just … a system of surveillance against people they don’t like.”

The document was a revelation for Dousa on two levels. “It was clear when I read the OIG report that they hadn’t seen the deposition testimony from Saro Oliveri,” she said. “I’d be very curious to see if they update once some of this information comes back to them.” At the same time, Dousa herself had no idea that CBP had requested her detention by Mexican authorities; the documents and testimony surrounding the request had been sealed. It was, for her, the most shocking of the Secure Line revelations of the past three years. “The Trusted Traveler issue was one thing. The idea of being kidnapped by Mexican authorities or others is a whole different thing,” she said. “They were basically asking the federales to get us.”

“We all know that the cartels and other bad actors monitor these communications, especially with the Mexican government, very closely, that they easily could have been warned that I was the high target,” Dousa added. “The idea of the U.S. government asking the Mexican government and its law enforcement to apprehend me, a pastor, is just terrifying.” 

In December, Dousa’s lawyers asked the court to sanction Oliveri for “submitting a false or at best misleading sworn declaration” to the court and “failing to correct the record upon learning” of his faulty declaration. “Pastor Dousa does not file this motion for sanctions lightly,” the request said. The government has yet to respond to the claims. “CBP just doesn’t care,” Dousa said. “They just say what they want, and they get away with it.” That’s the reason for filing the sanctions request, she added, “because I think truth actually is important.”

More than three years after being added to the border blacklist, the pastor is navigating conflicting feelings. On the one hand, she believes her case is stronger than ever. “I don’t feel like I’m screaming into a void anymore,” she said. At the same time, she added, “I also just hate thinking about this. I hate talking about it. It’s a painful memory.” After the NBC story broke in 2019, Dousa’s congregation was inundated with death threats. The church hired private security to protect her. Each fresh round of media coverage prompts a new anxiety. “Anytime a news story comes out, I’m like, ‘Oh no, is that gonna start up again?’” Dousa said. Still, she remains resolute: “I want there to be consequences here. I want there to be disciplinary action taken against these folks.”

CBP, the nation’s largest police agency, is due for a major overhaul, the pastor argued. “Their whole intelligence structure is really just, as you’ve seen, a system of surveillance against people they don’t like,” Dousa said. “They don’t need to have an intelligence division at all. I’ll tell you because I’ve met those intelligence officers. It’s a misnomer.”

Leave a comment