BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is all On The Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week, I'm Bob Garfield. Recently there has been a record number of migrant families crossing the southern border. And US authorities say they cannot cope.
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Illegal immigration is simply spiraling out of control and threatening public safety and national security. We face a crisis–a real serious and sustained crisis at our borders. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: That was Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielson testifying Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee. She paid lip service to the inescapable humanitarian implications but focused on the president's nightmare vision of pillaging hordes. Some of the spin was mind boggling, especially her defense of the outdoor concrete slab chain link fence pens where children are held once separated from their parents. Here is Neilson's answer to committee chairman Bennie Thompson who wanted an explanation for incarceration of children in cages.
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Sir, they're not cages.
BENNIE THOMPSON: What are they?
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Areas of the border facility that are carved out for the safety and protection of those who remain there while they're being processed. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: As the Senate prepared for a vote on repudiating Trump’s declaration of national emergency to build his promised beautiful, beautiful wall, contortionist rhetoric was the least of the week's border related scandals. On Thursday we learned that Neilson's Customs and Border Protection agency worked with Mexican authorities in detaining journalists at border entries and interrogating them about their Mexican travels. The watch list leaked to San Diego's NBC 7 News Department targeted more than 50 people most of whom are immigration activists but also including 10 journalists and a US lawyer.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: US journalists and attorneys felt they were being, sometimes, targeted by their own government. And now leaked documents from a government source show their fears were warranted. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Mari Payton of NBC 7 in San Diego broke the story. Mari, welcome to the show.
MARI PAYTON: Thanks for having me Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Nice story. Who's in the database.
MARI PAYTON: There's 59 people total. There's journalists there are attorneys. Actually we just found out this morning that there is a member of a church, a pastor. There's also immigrant rights activists and advocates.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of whom are identified as instigators.
MARI PAYTON: Right. So it's official name was the San Diego sector foreign operations branch suspected organizers, coordinators, instigators and media.
BOB GARFIELD: And they have what in common?
MARI PAYTON: Well, according to the people that we spoke to, they all covered the border, worked at the border. At some point in November, December 2018 when the migrant caravan from Honduras was making its way toward the Tijuana-San Diego border. Now Customs and Border Protection, late yesterday, came out with a statement to NBC News that said, 'all of the people in this database had witnessed violence erupting around the border in November.' But the people we spoke to, not all of them, were there at that time. So we're still trying to find out exactly if there was a single event that ties them all together, but as far as we know they were all just working around the border at that time.
BOB GARFIELD: Ten people on the list are journalists.
MARI PAYTON: Right. And a lot of those are freelancers. Because now they're listed in the database, some of them are being denied entry into Mexico to do this sort of work.
BOB GARFIELD: So the government doesn't deny this watch list or the detentions of journalists at the border. It says that they are related to a November 25th incident when asylum seekers in San Ysidro at the border facility rushed the border.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Sunday afternoon, about 100 Mexican nationals tried to illegally enter the US west of the San Ysidro border crossing. But within the crowd a few bad apples hit Border Patrol agents with rocks and water bottles in the arms legs and head. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: I want to read you an excerpt from the Customs and Border Protection statement on this quote: 'It is protocol following these incidents to collect evidence that might be needed for future legal actions and to determine if the event was orchestrated.' Can you tell me what part of that double talk would possibly involve journalists and at least one lawyer who is on this list to be hauled in for another one of these secondary screenings?
MARI PAYTON: That word orchestrated. None of these journalists were there to entice the migrants. They were there to document what was happening–to witness history, to take photos if you will, to talk to people. And bring up a good point about those secondary screenings. Customs and Border Protection have been doing that, but all of these people say in the months following that caravan movement in December, they were constantly called in for those secondary screenings again and again and again. And asked some interesting questions. We talked to one woman who we named in the piece. She's a freelance journalist there and they asked her if she rented or she owned her home in San Diego. She was puzzled by that of course. I mean why would that matter in terms of what she was doing at the border. And we've found at least one dossier related to one of these people in the database that was so detailed, in fact, it had not only her passport picture, social media accounts but information about her own mother, what kind of car she was driving, the license plate number. So it's the amount of detail too that the government is tracking these people that is alarming.
BOB GARFIELD: It's worth noting that every time these people attempt to cross the border for the rest of their lives, including to do their jobs, they are likely to be hauled in for another one of these secondary screenings.
MARI PAYTON: Right. And all of the people that we spoke to say what they were concerned about was the level that some of these people were taking it to in terms of asking to see their photographs, looking through reporter notebooks–things that they didn't feel comfortable with. They were being separated from some of their gear and some of their cameras, which are obviously very expensive, but also contained their work. There's the question of sources. People don't want to give up their sources. Obviously some of that could be written in some of these notebooks.
BOB GARFIELD: Journalists suspected this was going on before you ever broke your story. There had been whispers about what seemed to be a coordinated targeting of journalists at the border. There was an Intercept piece that raised the question of what was going on. Your piece and the documents you received were the smoking gun.
MARI PAYTON: All of these people had this suspicion that they were sort of being tracked or there was an alert on their name but until this database and until our story aired, most of these people had no idea it existed and were surprised and shocked to learn that they were on it and were questioning why. Why me? This is the first time there's been real evidence. It came to us from inside Homeland Security. We then verified it and we went to Customs and Border Protection to ask them about it, they didn't deny that it existed. And what was interesting about this is this database can be accessed by a lot of different federal agencies. We're talking about customs and border protection but also ICE, Homeland Security, the San Diego sector of the FBI. Now the source that we spoke to he was very alarmed, obviously, if he gave us this information. The source wanted to make sure that we knew that they and this is the quote, 'We are a criminal investigation agency, we're not an intelligence agency.' And said that it's actually an abuse of the border search authority to be keeping a database like this.
BOB GARFIELD: There is a term for what you've described and it is domestic spying. What's the level of outrage you've heard from the politicians if spoken to while reporting this story.
MARI PAYTON: Well, I mean besides the politicians, I mean the public outrage has been huge. It is important to note though not everyone is upset and some people are saying that if there were people there during the migrant caravan, that the government has every right to track them. We have yet to get an official word from any of our elected officials. I know Governor Gavin Newsom is in town, of California, today and we are trying to get reaction from him. Obviously we've also reached out to Senator Dianne Feinstein, Kamala Harris. It will be interesting to see what the response is from our elected officials and then more importantly, will anything be done?
BOB GARFIELD: Did the people you speak to believe that this is intimidation, that it's meant to have a chilling effect on reporting south of the border?
MARI PAYTON: Oh absolutely. I think some feel like it's working as well. They are being intimidated. For a lot of these people, I think it is extremely difficult. They want more answers, basically.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Mari thank you very much.
MARI PAYTON: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Mari Payton is an investigative anchor and reporter with the NBC 7 investigative team in San Diego.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Kitra Cahana is a freelance photojournalist who's worked for The New York Times, National Geographic, the CBC, NBC and other outlets. She's been covering the migration and she is one of the journalists on the list. On January 17th, on her way to Tapachula, Mexico to cover a nascent caravan, she was flagged for secondary screening by US Customs. And then when she arrived in Mexico City officials pulled her aside again.
KITRA CAHANA: I wasn't allowed to leave. They took away my phone. I wasn't allowed to call anyone. I couldn't call my embassy. They had me fill out questions. And after about five hours they told me that I was being denied entry into Mexico. I was held for about 13 hours and then I was escorted back onto a plane, handed my passport and my phone and I was taken back to Detroit.
BOB GARFIELD: And the Mexican authorities said, 'hey don't look at us this came from the Americans.'
KITRA CAHANA: There was an official, that through my broken Spanish, his broken English who had said that I was on some kind of Interpol list and that the Americans had put me on it but I'm not sure whether he knew or whether he was just saying something.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the problems with border flags is that they just, they never go away. Have you traveled overseas since that day. And if so have you been stopped, pulled aside again?
KITRA CAHANA: Well, I attempted to cross into Mexico to cover the caravan a second time. I flew from Detroit down to Guatemala City. I didn't have any issues going into Guatemala. Then tried to cross into Mexico through the Guatemalan-Mexican border and basically the same thing happened and I was denied entry again.
BOB GARFIELD: You you're in Honduras as we speak, do you have plans to try to go into Mexico in the near future?
KITRA CAHANA: I'm working on a story about a woman who died in US detention. She traveled through Mexico so, while reporting on the story I hope to be able to return to Mexico to some of the places that she traveled to. I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to do that.
BOB GARFIELD: You're a freelance journalist. You go from story to story, assignment to assignment and your ability to get to those assignments determines whether you make a living.
KITRA CAHANA: Ultimately it's the public that loses when journalists aren't able to do their work and bring clarity to these kinds of issues. In the current state of the media, so much of the work that is brought forward is brought to publications by freelancers. Often what this means is that we are self funding and then hoping that a publication will pick up the work that we do or they'll put us on assignment while we're there. And so not knowing whether you can freely travel to a location causes a lot of uncertainty and a lot of other journalists have reached out to me since all of this came out and they're questioning whether they want to put their own money forward as freelancers to go to the border to risk covering migration or border issues. All of this is creating a climate of fear.
BOB GARFIELD: You mad?
KITRA CAHANA: Am I mad?
BOB GARFIELD: I mean, I'm mad.
KITRA CAHANA: I would say I'm confused. I don't understand why this is happening to myself or my colleagues. I think it's a horrible precedent. It's been a little confusing to try to figure out what the pattern is. There is a cohort of photographers who were working every day right by the wall and many of us, not all of us, are on the list. You know, I'm grateful to whoever it was that leaked this because for the last month and a half now, we've been in this kind of limbo not sure why this was happening. Reporters were reaching out to CBP and they were denying that they had placed any alert on our passports. The Mexican government was being similarly vague and it just seems like there's a lot more clarity now.
BOB GARFIELD: Customs and Border Protection claims that this watch list is part of an investigation into the incident, November 25th, when some asylum seekers rushed to the border. They want to talk to witnesses. Were you even there that day?
KITRA CAHANA: No. I've also been in touch with a lot of the other journalists who are on this list and many of them weren't there either that day. So I don't think that that makes sense as an answer. I'm not sure what they're referring to there.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Kitra, thank you very much.
KITRA CAHANA: Thank you for talking to me.
BOB GARFIELD: Kitra Cahana is a freelance photojournalist with MAPS photo agency.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, who gets to curate a president's museum? Surely not the president. This is On The Media.