Homeland Security officials during the Trump administration put lookouts on some Americans because of their suspected involvement in the migrant caravans, and even asked Mexico to turn them back at the border if they tried to enter that country, an inspector general said Thursday.
Customs and Border Protection officials had “legitimate reasons” for putting lookouts on 14 individuals, the audit found, but they had “no genuine basis” to ask Mexico to deny entry to them.
There may have been even more cases, but the investigators said they were stymied because CBP officials “were not forthcoming.” The audit did find in those cases that CBP shared sensitive information about the U.S. citizens with Mexican authorities.
“CBP may restrict Americans’ rights to travel internationally in certain circumstances, but CBP could not articulate any genuine basis for sending this request and in fact later admitted that the reasons provided to Mexico were not true,” the investigators said.
Homeland Security put the lookouts on people, including journalists, to try to learn more information about the illegal border crossings that took place as massive migrant caravans crossed Mexico and tried to breach the U.S. border.
The lookouts were meant to flag people when encountered by border officers, giving CBP authorities a chance to interview them.
While the lookouts on journalists were “unnecessary,” the inspector general said there was no evidence they were placed for nefarious reasons.
“We found no direct evidence in emails or interviews that CBP officials intended to retaliate, harass, or intimidate individuals associated with the migrant caravan by placing lookouts on them,” the audit concluded. “To the contrary, the evidence suggests CBP placed most lookouts to seek information that would help CBP respond to the migrant caravan.”
About half the lookouts were on people suspected of inciting illegal behavior, while others were placed on caravan organizers or people suspected of marriage fraud.
But CBP officials were sometimes slow to remove the lookouts, leaving people to face intrusive secondary screening when it was no longer necessary, the audit said.
All told, investigators identified 51 lookouts related to the caravans, but CBP’s documentation isn’t complete “so there could be others.”
Thirty-nine of the subjects were referred for secondary screening.
One emergency operations center official, whom the report didn’t name, placed the most lookouts, including on five journalists. He told investigators he wanted to know what information the journalists had — but the inspector general didn’t believe that, saying the questions asked in the interviews strayed from that topic.
In its official response to the report, CBP defended the use of lookouts and said it was “pleased” the inspector general confirmed there were legitimate reasons for placing them on persons associated with the caravans.
The agency said it will work on better protecting Americans’ sensitive information when communicating with other governments.