A Manhattan pastor is suing the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies after her name was placed on a surveillance list of 59 immigrant rights activists and journalists who went to Mexico last winter. The existence of the database was first reported by NBC San Diego in March.
Reverend Kaji Dousa, of the Park Avenue Church, claims she was interrogated at the U.S. border after counseling migrants in Tijuana in January. The complaint, filed in U.S. federal court in San Diego this week, says she and others were "targeted for increased surveillance and heightened interrogation at the border on the basis of protected speech, regarding U.S. immigration law and policy, and that in Dousa's case, this speech is compelled by her faith."
Dousa, who is also a prominent leader in New York's New Sanctuary Coalition, was part of a mobile faith clinic or "sanctuary caravan" assisting migrants in Tijuana late last year — as a caravan of asylum-seekers gained attention. She prayed with migrants and even officiated weddings. She had a special pass from the government that granted her expedited entry into and out of Mexico.
Upon crossing back into the U.S. on January 2, Dousa claims an officer from Customs and Border Protection held her for several hours and interrogated her about her work with New Sanctuary. Dousa alleges that she was asked whether she encouraged migrants to lie on their asylum applications, and that she told the CBP officer that lying would be a violation of her faith.
In March, Dousa learned she was among the 59 people the government had been keeping tabs on at the border, and that her pass for expedited entry had been revoked. The government claimed extra security was needed after violent confrontations at the border late last year, but Dousa said she wasn't near those incidents. Since learning of the database in March, she has only gone back to Mexico once — when she was accompanied by an attorney.
"Pastor Dousa does not know the full extent of the government's adverse actions against her, including what surveillance was conducted, what information it has collected, or for what purposes it may use that information,” the complaint states.
In her lawsuit, Dousa is asking the court to restore her expedited entry status, and to issue an injunction to stop the government from surveilling her.
Dousa told Gothamist/WNYC that migrants are now afraid to come to her Park Avenue Church on the Upper East Side. And when they do, she said, they take extra security steps in case anyone may be listening.
"I have to have them turn off their phones, my phone," she said. "We have to make sure they're in another room. We have to — and Lord knows whether or not there's another whole layer of surveillance in the places where we meet. We try to switch things up and go to different places."
Dousa appears to be the first person to file a lawsuit over the government database. The ACLU of San Diego did not reply to a request for comment.
Dousa said she felt her case was special because she's a pastor with religious protections under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"With a government that is pursuing increased religious freedoms on behalf of churches, it's curious to me that as a pastor I'm being pursued."
Dousa is represented by Arnold & Porter and the group Protect Democracy. Her lawsuit names the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.
The government agencies said they don't comment on pending lawsuits.
Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering courts and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.