A group of journalists has sued the Trump administration after being detained at the southern border while covering migrant caravans, saying Border Patrol agents violated First Amendment free-press guarantees by quizzing them about their sources and photographs.
The five freelance photojournalists claim they were singled out when coming back to the U.S. after traveling in Mexico to report on the thousands of migrants traveling to the U.S. border in caravans last year and in early 2019.
They said border patrol agents — both Mexican officials and U.S. agents — questioned them about the people in their photographs, asking who were the instigators.
“As a freelance photojournalist covering news and various issues, I want to know that I am free to work without government interference,” said Mark Abramson, one of the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit asserts that the journalists’ First Amendment rights were violated because the detention and searches impose a chilling fear on reporters.
The five plaintiffs have had their work featured in publications such as The New York Times, The Intercept and BuzzFeed.
Mr. Abramson was reporting on conditions near Tijuana, Mexico, where a caravan was encamped during a journey from Honduras to the U.S.
He was detained in the early morning hours of Jan. 5 by a border agent who searched him and his belongings, including rifling through his reporter notebook. The agent asked him who was leading the caravan, if they were against the U.S. government, and what groups are assisting the migrants, he said.
Some of the agents also took cellphone photographs of the images on the journalists’ cameras. according to the 36-page complaint filed in federal court in New York.
Each of the journalists was detained for roughly an hour at a time, said the complaint.
“A core principle of our democracy is the freedom of the press. That freedom is imperiled when the government uses the pretext of border screening to interrogate journalists who were simply doing their jobs,” said Esha Bhandari, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the journalists.
A spokesperson from the Justice Department said the agency won’t comment on pending litigation.
The journalists accuse the federal government of targeting certain people they knew traveled across the border — like journalists and lawyers — using headshots and personal information that had been blasted out in internal government emails, according to court documents.
“When I saw my photo crossed out in a secret government database, I realized the secondary screening and interrogation wasn’t random. I was being targeted by my own government for reporting on conditions at the border,” said Bing Guan, another photojournalist involved in the lawsuit.