Immigration Officials Accused of Targeting Faith Leader and Religious Groups

Migrants pass by the U.S. flag in Tijuana, Mexico. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres

For the Rev. Kaji Douša, senior pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church in New York, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is a fairly uneventful activity. A former San Diego resident, she had passed through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoints many times in the past without incident.

But in early January, as she crossed going north from Tijuana back to the United States, something was different.

Douša was returning from participating in a 40-day “Sanctuary Caravan” designed to offer aid to Central American asylum-seekers participating in the migrant caravan. The campaign was organized by the New York City-based New Sanctuary Coalition, a faith-based immigrant rights group co-chaired by Douša, a veteran immigrant rights advocate.

But as she attempted to walk across the San Ysidro port of entry on Jan. 2, Douša said, she was unexpectedly detained for a “secondary inspection” by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. She described to Religion News Service being escorted into a room, where she was met by two men who wore uniforms different from other CBP officers. Then, she said, they proceeded to pepper her with questions for at least an hour and a half.

Douša, who regularly appears on MSNBC to discuss immigration issues, said the officials not only “interrogated” her about the specifics of her trip to Mexico, but also about her faith-based coalition and why she spent her time advocating for immigrants.

Her response, she said, was a spiritual one: “Because my faith compels me — you do remember Jesus was a refugee? My sense is that when we deport someone made in the image of God, we’re deporting Jesus.”

A Honduran girl walks with her mother through the streets of Tijuana, where they have been staying while trying to get asylum in the U.S. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres

She was eventually released and able to return home, but reports of recently leaked internal Department of Homeland Security documents suggest that the intense questioning Douša was subjected to is part of an effort by the U.S. government to track and scrutinize immigrant rights activists — including, it seems, faith-based leaders such as Douša and the group she helps lead.

In documents obtained by a San Diego NBC affiliate and published on its website on March 6, Douša’s name and photo appear with a yellow “X” across her face, indicating that her visa or SENTRI pass — SENTRI stands for Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, a system that allows for expedited screening along the Southwest U.S.-Mexico border — has been revoked.

The documents showed Douša and several others listed in a secret government database of activists, journalists and lawyers that is allegedly used by agents of CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations and agents from the San Diego sector of the FBI, according to NBC.

The documents were originally published with many names and faces blurred out. Douša said that when an NBC reporter confirmed to her that she was on the list, she was appalled.

“I broke into tears,” she said. “I was so devastated to see myself in my government’s crosshairs.”

Douša said she is also concerned her Global Entry status, which allows for expedited screening at other ports of entry and is often connected to the SENTRI program, may also have been revoked. She fears too that her ability to travel to Mexico is “in question” given that others on the list have been denied entry into the country.

The Rev. Kaji Douša
as she appears in an
alleged government
database. According
to documents leaked
to NBC, the yellow
“X” indicates her
SENTRI status has
been revoked. Via
Kaji Douša

Asked to confirm the leak and Douša’s account, Andrew Meehan, assistant commissioner of public affairs at CBP, responded with a statement that did not directly refer to Douša or deny the authenticity of the documents uncovered by NBC. It said the agency “initiated an inquiry in February” to address “assaults against Border Patrol Agents” in November 2018 — the same month when tensions at the border rose to the point where border agents teargassed people seeking entry into the United States.

“In response to recent incidents in November 2018 and January of this year, which included assaults against Border Patrol Agents, CBP identified individuals who may have information relating to the instigators and/or organizers of these attacks,” the statement read in part. “Efforts to gather this type of information are a standard law enforcement practice.”

Asked if she had been questioned about anything in line with the CBP’s statement, Douša, who said she was not at the border during the November confrontation, offered a one-word response: “Never.”

Douša said the revelations are frustrating because she has not been accused of any crimes.

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Source: Religion News Service