Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Lawyers with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project are among a growing number of immigration attorneys, advocates and journalists who have been detained and questioned by officials at the border.
“I complied. I know that I have nothing to hide or anything to be afraid of,” said Hector Ruiz, an attorney based on the border for the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. The non-profit organization provides free legal assistance for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, or “Dreamers,” in New Mexico and asylum seekers, including transgender women.
Ruiz said he was held for four hours by Customs and Border Protection officers after returning from a dinner in Ciudad Juárez in December. He was detained in a waiting room until investigators in plain clothes arrived.
“They tell me their job is to investigate terrorism and criminal activity on the border so they just started asking me questions about the work that I do, the organization I work for, how the organization gets funded,” Ruiz said.
NBC News was first to report about a CBP list in the San Diego area with the names of 59 reporters, lawyers and activists, including many U.S. citizens, targeted for additional screening when crossing the border into the United States. The list was compiled after some members of a caravan of Honduran migrants tried to climb the border fence or run through ports of entry.
The House Homeland Security Committee asked CBP for a copy of the list after the NBC report and an explanation about why each person had been included and whether any cellphones had been seized and searched.
CBP officers are authorized to search electronic devices at the border. “As a constitutional matter, border search authority is premised in part on a reduced expectation of privacy associated with international travel,” according to CBP directives listed on the agency’s website.
The search can include cellphones, computer laptops, tablets or other electronic devices and may happen whenever someone enters or leaves the country.
“They help detect evidence relating to terrorism and other national security matters, human and bulk cash smuggling, contraband and child pornography,” according to CBP.
The investigators who questioned Ruiz gave him a pamphlet explaining they had the right to search his phone, so he handed it over and unlocked the device.
“I have nothing to hide. I’m not a criminal. I’m not a terrorist. I’m just doing my job as an American citizen,” Ruiz said.
He watched as the agents looked at his photos, contacts, read his text messages and WhatsApp conversations. They took notes and asked how he knew some of the people.
“They asked me my opinion on the way the country is being run by the administration,” Ruiz said. In addition to his political views, the immigration lawyer said they wanted to know more about his personal experience. He was raised on the border and crosses back and forth on a regular basis.
“The line of questioning made me feel like they were really trying to get to the bottom of this radicalizing experience,” Ruiz said.
Since the incident in December, Ruiz said he has not been stopped again by CBP officers. During the four hours he was detained and questioned he tried to explain to investigators his role as an attorney meeting with migrants waiting in Mexico to make an asylum claim in the U.S.
“I’m not fighting against the government. I’m just advocating for folks’ ability to exercise their rights under U.S. law,” Ruiz said.
Allegra Love, the director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, has been stopped at the Arizona border after returning from Mexico several times.
“It was getting harder for me to make it across the border. I’d just show my passport and they’d be like we need to pull you into secondary inspection,” said Love, who is also an attorney.
Although she was questioned, Love said she did not have to hand over her phone or any other electronic devices.
CBP officers asked to look at documents a legal assistant traveling with Love had, but when the woman declined the officers did not insist, according to Love.
She wonders if officials are suspicious about the work she’s doing in Mexico.
“They suspect that I am somehow organizing and encouraging people to ask for political asylum. But that’s not the case at all,” Love said.
Rather, she explained, she counsels transgender women to think carefully about what will happen if they cross the border without authorization and are locked up in a detention center.
“Every single client that we work with goes through the ports of entry because it’s absolutely safer than crossing the border illegally,” Love said.
As the Trump administration’s remain-in-Mexico program, renamed the “Migrant Protection Protocol,” is expanded to the El Paso region, which includes New Mexico, more U.S. lawyers will have to cross the border to meet with clients waiting in Mexico who have an asylum claim in the U.S.
“What concerns me is that the government is actively trying to kill our work providing really, really, really critical humanitarian aid to massive groups of vulnerable people,” Love said.