Watchdog: CBP improperly targeted Americans as caravans approached border

U.S. Customs and Border Protection improperly targeted American citizens that the agency suspected were involved with a 2018-19 migrant caravan with intrusive additional inspections, according to a new Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report.

The inspector general also found that a Customs and Border Protection official asked the Mexican government in December 2018 to block 14 U.S. citizens from entering Mexico as the caravan approached the U.S. border even though it had “no genuine basis” to do so.

The report, dated Sept. 20 but not yet publicly released, documents one instance where CBP officials placed “lookouts” — electronic alerts that lead to more intrusive inspections when crossing the U.S. border — on 15 Americans who had previously crossed the border with or were connected via social media to someone who CBP suspected might be planning violence at the border. But CBP didn’t have any information that those 15 Americans were involved in planning any of the violence or were present at an intrusion into the U.S.

CBP officials also improperly shared the “sensitive information” of other U.S. citizens with the Mexican government, according to the DHS watchdog. The CBP officials involved, the inspector general said, “were not forthcoming about the disclosures, did not follow CPB policies on sharing information with foreign entities and did not retain communication records.”

Caravans of Central American migrants traveling north to the U.S. through Mexico were a hot button issue throughout the administration of President Donald Trump, who characterized the groups as imminent threats. Trump pointed to the mass migration tactic as proof that his controversial, hardline policies — including the construction of a border wall and the separation of families entering the U.S. illegally — were needed.

Attempts at en masse migration have continued at the nation’s southern border under the Biden administration, which has struggled to make good on its pledge to install a “fair and humane” immigration system while deterring the groups from crossing.

Biden administration officials this week decried images of CBP agents on horseback using what appeared to be reins to block Haitian migrants, thousands of whom have massed at a border crossing near Del Rio, Texas, from entering the U.S. But the White House has nonetheless launched deportation efforts to send migrants back to Haiti, which remains wrecked by political instability and damage from an earthquake earlier this month.

In its report on the CBP’s actions around the 2018-19 caravan, the DHS inspector general found that one CBP Emergency Operations Center employee placed lookouts on five journalists who had been reporting on the caravan which led them to be subjected to secondary inspection. But when they came back to the U.S., interview records show they were never asked about what they knew about migrants crossing the border illegally.

“Although EOC Official 1 told us the purpose of these lookouts was to determine whether the journalists had information about the incident, his actions show he actually had no interest in that information,” the report said.

The IG report said that the official, who is not named, never followed up with any of the officers interviewing the journalists to ask why they didn’t ask the journalists about their knowledge of the caravan or request that they do so next time. (In 2019, a San Diego NBC affiliate reported on a leaked document that indicated that some activists and journalists were subject to additional screening at the border.)

The report said they didn’t find any evidence that CBP used lookouts to retaliate against Americans for performing lawful work related to the migrant caravan but that CBP officials did not understand or consistently follow the agency’s policy related to lookouts.

It noted that CBP’s only written guidance on when to place lookouts hasn’t been updated since 1990, 13 years before the Department of Homeland Security was established.

One American crossing the border was referred to additional security scrutiny when crossing the border six times in a single month, the report found. During a second “inspection,” the person was handcuffed to a bench, “possibly for several hours” until officers from the Tactical Terrorism Response Team arrived to conduct an interview. The report said that the lookout was placed to obtain the phone number and information about a different person but that there is no evidence that officers ever sought the information for which the lookout was placed.

“The TTRT officers also manually searched his phone but did not document what information was sought or obtained, leaving in question whether the search served any purpose,” the report says. “EOC Official 2 apparently never made any effort to learn what was discussed in the follow-up inspections or what was found on the individual’s phone. EOC Official 2 told us he might have lost track of this individual.”

Another American associated with an organization helping the caravan was referred to secondary inspection four times in December 2018 and January 2019, the report said. CBP didn’t obtain any additional information in the second and third interviews beyond what was discussed in the first one. Officers didn’t even bother to document the fourth interview, according to the inspector general’s report.

“The individual told us that he became nervous and lost sleep in anticipation of secondary inspection,” the report says. “He eventually decided to stop crossing the border to avoid additional inspections, which prevented him from visiting family and friends, and from providing humanitarian assistance to migrants.”

In its response to the IG report, CBP said in a letter that it agreed with the IG’s recommendations to ensure that CBP officials receive current guidance and procedures when placing lookouts and communicating with foreign governments about American citizens.

Spokespeople for DHS and CBP didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on if any employees will be subject to disciplinary action.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection improperly targeted American citizens that the agency suspected were involved with a 2018-19 migrant caravan with intrusive additional inspections, according to a new Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report.

The inspector general also found that a Customs and Border Protection official asked the Mexican government in December 2018 to block 14 U.S. citizens from entering Mexico as the caravan approached the U.S. border even though it had “no genuine basis” to do so.

The report, dated Sept. 20 but not yet publicly released, documents one instance where CBP officials placed “lookouts” — electronic alerts that lead to more intrusive inspections when crossing the U.S. border — on 15 Americans who had previously crossed the border with or were connected via social media to someone who CBP suspected might be planning violence at the border. But CBP didn’t have any information that those 15 Americans were involved in planning any of the violence or were present at an intrusion into the U.S.

CBP officials also improperly shared the “sensitive information” of other U.S. citizens with the Mexican government, according to the DHS watchdog. The CBP officials involved, the inspector general said, “were not forthcoming about the disclosures, did not follow CPB policies on sharing information with foreign entities and did not retain communication records.”

Caravans of Central American migrants traveling north to the U.S. through Mexico were a hot button issue throughout the administration of President Donald Trump, who characterized the groups as imminent threats. Trump pointed to the mass migration tactic as proof that his controversial, hardline policies — including the construction of a border wall and the separation of families entering the U.S. illegally — were needed.

Attempts at en masse migration have continued at the nation’s southern border under the Biden administration, which has struggled to make good on its pledge to install a “fair and humane” immigration system while deterring the groups from crossing.

Biden administration officials this week decried images of CBP agents on horseback using what appeared to be reins to block Haitian migrants, thousands of whom have massed at a border crossing near Del Rio, Texas, from entering the U.S. But the White House has nonetheless launched deportation efforts to send migrants back to Haiti, which remains wrecked by political instability and damage from an earthquake earlier this month.

In its report on the CBP’s actions around the 2018-19 caravan, the DHS inspector general found that one CBP Emergency Operations Center employee placed lookouts on five journalists who had been reporting on the caravan which led them to be subjected to secondary inspection. But when they came back to the U.S., interview records show they were never asked about what they knew about migrants crossing the border illegally.

“Although EOC Official 1 told us the purpose of these lookouts was to determine whether the journalists had information about the incident, his actions show he actually had no interest in that information,” the report said.

The IG report said that the official, who is not named, never followed up with any of the officers interviewing the journalists to ask why they didn’t ask the journalists about their knowledge of the caravan or request that they do so next time. (In 2019, a San Diego NBC affiliate reported on a leaked document that indicated that some activists and journalists were subject to additional screening at the border.)

The report said they didn’t find any evidence that CBP used lookouts to retaliate against Americans for performing lawful work related to the migrant caravan but that CBP officials did not understand or consistently follow the agency’s policy related to lookouts.

It noted that CBP’s only written guidance on when to place lookouts hasn’t been updated since 1990, 13 years before the Department of Homeland Security was established.

One American crossing the border was referred to additional security scrutiny when crossing the border six times in a single month, the report found. During a second “inspection,” the person was handcuffed to a bench, “possibly for several hours” until officers from the Tactical Terrorism Response Team arrived to conduct an interview. The report said that the lookout was placed to obtain the phone number and information about a different person but that there is no evidence that officers ever sought the information for which the lookout was placed.

“The TTRT officers also manually searched his phone but did not document what information was sought or obtained, leaving in question whether the search served any purpose,” the report says. “EOC Official 2 apparently never made any effort to learn what was discussed in the follow-up inspections or what was found on the individual’s phone. EOC Official 2 told us he might have lost track of this individual.”

Another American associated with an organization helping the caravan was referred to secondary inspection four times in December 2018 and January 2019, the report said. CBP didn’t obtain any additional information in the second and third interviews beyond what was discussed in the first one. Officers didn’t even bother to document the fourth interview, according to the inspector general’s report.

“The individual told us that he became nervous and lost sleep in anticipation of secondary inspection,” the report says. “He eventually decided to stop crossing the border to avoid additional inspections, which prevented him from visiting family and friends, and from providing humanitarian assistance to migrants.”

In its response to the IG report, CBP said in a letter that it agreed with the IG’s recommendations to ensure that CBP officials receive current guidance and procedures when placing lookouts and communicating with foreign governments about American citizens.

Spokespeople for DHS and CBP didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on if any employees will be subject to disciplinary action.

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