WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley today addressed what he called “stunning reports” of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) watch list targeting 59 reporters, legal aid attorneys, and immigration rights activists for surveillance and harassment at the southern border, calling on Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to shut down the program immediately.
“This program undermines our constitutionally protected right to free speech and free press, and must end immediately,” Merkley wrote in a letter to Nielsen. “The title of this watch list program, ‘San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019 Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators, and Media,’ suggests that CBP, along with several other federal law enforcement agencies, is engaged in a secret investigation targeting at least 59 individuals because of their statements, reporting, and other expressions of dissent protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Taken together, this program appears to be a coordinated effort to intimidate and harass U.S. citizens and foreign nationals who provide assistance to legal migrant asylum seekers.”
As Merkley stands up for the rights of journalists, lawyers, and activists at the border, he is also continuing his work investigating the Trump administration’s child detention policies. Over the last several months, the Trump administration has been quietly expanding the capacity of migrant child prison in Homestead, Florida by 1,000 beds. That shift would nearly double the number of children imprisoned there, from 1,350 to 2,350. The administration is operating Homestead on federal property and under a “temporary” emergency framework in order to avoid state and federal child welfare regulations. Merkley will visit Homestead this coming Monday, March 11, to investigate the conditions for children incarcerated there.
On June 3, 2018 Merkley set off a national firestorm when he went to the border to personally investigate the Administration’s child separation policy and was turned away from a children’s detention center in Brownsville, Texas. Merkley pressured the Trump administration to back down from this cruel policy of separating children from their parents, but the administration has been determined to keep pursuing policies that inflict trauma on children and families fleeing persecution abroad.
In December, Merkley visited Texas to inspect family internment camps and a children’s tent prison where the administration had been locking up children seeking asylum. After speaking out against what he saw and introducing legislation to shut down the child tent prison, Tornillo, the contractors running Tornillo announced in late December that they would stop accepting new children. Tornillo was shut down in mid-January, but now the administration is trying to expand Homestead—a similar, unregulated child detention center in Florida. Merkley will be visiting that facility this coming Monday to conduct oversight. Merkley, along with Representative Judy Chu (D-CA), has introduced the Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act to close down Homestead and prevent any future re-opening of Tornillo.
In January, Merkley released a leaked December 2017 memo showing the administration’s planning for a child separation policy. He has since called on the FBI to investigate Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for perjury. Nielsen testified under oath before Congress that the administration never had a child separation policy. At a House hearing this week, Nielsen repeated her denials about the administration’s policies.
The full text of Merkley’s letter to Nielsen follows below.
Dear Secretary Nielsen,
I write to address stunning reports revealing that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has secretly cooperated with Mexican intelligence services to assemble a target watch list of 59 mostly American reporters, legal aid attorneys, and immigrant rights activists for the purpose of harassment, surveillance, and otherwise interfering with their lawful border crossings along the southern United States border. This program undermines our constitutionally protected right to free speech and free press, and must end immediately.
The title of this watch list program, “San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019 Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators, and Media,” suggests that CBP, along with several other federal law enforcement agencies, is engaged in a secret investigation targeting at least 59 individuals because of their statements, reporting, and other expressions of dissent protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Taken together, this program appears to be a coordinated effort to intimidate and harass U.S. citizens and foreign nationals who provide assistance to legal migrant asylum seekers.
As a basic principle, all asylum seekers should be treated with extreme care, dignity, and respect at all times while they await a final decision in immigration court. Additionally, the federal government should not treat journalists, attorneys, and advocates as though they are part of a vast criminal conspiracy requiring surprise interrogations, unannounced warrantless searches, or other actions commonly associated with a criminal law enforcement operation. If the Department has legitimate questions for the individuals on this watch list, they should be formally submitted in writing.
I will be leading a congressional delegation visit to Tijuana, Mexico in the coming weeks to further investigate this issue and many others surrounding the Administration’s treatment of asylum seekers. In order to effectively carry out my Constitutional oversight responsibilities, I respectfully ask that you answer the following questions by March 15th, 2019.
1) What is the scope and authority for the program known as “Operation Secure Line”?
2) Has DHS informed any of the 59 individuals that they are on a watch list?
3) Were any of the 59 individuals given the opportunity to appeal or otherwise contest their status on the watch list?
4) Did you or any other DHS official express concern about how this program could violate a U.S. citizen’s right to free speech
5) How many people are on this watch list today?
a) How many are U.S. citizens?
b) How many are primarily reporters?
c) How many are primarily immigration attorneys?
d) How many are primarily immigrant advocates?
6) Does DHS have plans to expand this list? If so, what additional categories of people could be added in the future?
7) Does CBP or any division of DHS maintain any other target list substantially similar to the “San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019 Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators, and Media”?
8) Does DHS consider any of the 59 individuals on this list to pose a bone fide security threat to the United States?