A New York City pastor traveled to Tijuana in late 2018 to provide aid to asylum-seekers. The Department of Homeland Security thought she might be inciting a riot and committing marriage fraud.
According to a trove of classified government documents, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers wondered if Park Avenue Church pastor Kaji Douša was connected to “ANTIFA” and if she is one of of the organizers of the migrant caravan, which arrived at the California/Mexico border in November 2018.
“So much of what they presented in these documents is just preposterous,” Douša told Gothamist. “If they’re wasting time creating a file and investigating me, what are they doing with the actual traffickers? It’s infuriating that my country could be so wasteful.”
The documents were unearthed as part of a lawsuit Douša has filed against DHS in federal court, after a whistleblower revealed earlier this year that Customs and Border Protection was spying on journalists, aid workers, clergy, and lawyers who traveled back and forth across the border during the humanitarian crisis last year. The revelation spurred several lawsuits against the government, including Douša’s.
The pastor is asking for the government to delete her surveillance file, to restore her travel privileges, and for an order from the court for DHS to stop retaliation against those expressing their free speech rights. The other lawsuits were launched by a group of journalists, and another by aid workers and lawyers.
Gothamist had traveled with Douša to Tijuana last year while she and a group of other NYC-based faith leaders took part in the “Sanctuary Caravan,” an offshoot of the New Sanctuary Coalition. There, they offered support to Central American migrants in the form of pro se legal clinics and accompaniment to border crossings, where they could apply for asylum. The group also offered to marry couples who did not carry with them any official certificates of marriage, in the hope that they wouldn’t be separated after crossing the border.
The documents were created by the San Diego unit of U.S. Border Patrol’s Intelligence Division, which was taking in “Operation Secure Line” — a codename for the government’s response to the migrant caravan. In “Targeting Cycle” reports, agents discussed if Douša has any connection to “recent ANTIFA movements along the southwestern border,” and referred her to be interviewed by the Tactical Terrorism Response Team (TTRT), a DHS group that subjects travelers who have already cleared immigration to extra scrutiny with the ability to deny them entrance into the U.S..
Douša came to the government’s attention after a Honduran migrant whose marriage ceremony she had performed earlier in the week was interviewed by a “Border Patrol Strike Team,” the documents show. The migrant told Border Patrol that Douša had told other migrants at the border, “that they should all get married to each other,” and that “if they get married, they will get papers to live in the United States.” (While in Tijuana with Douša, Gothamist saw no such offer or representation by the pastor or any other members of her group.)
“It just didn’t happen,” Douša said. “It makes you wonder what they told the migrant. Because to be placed under surveillance by the most powerful government in the world, it’s terrifying. And this is all it took.”
The documents also include Facebook posts that Douša and associates had posted about their trip to Tijuana.
The interrogation of migrants and those crossing the border to mine for intelligence about the caravan was standard practice by CBP in late 2018 and early 2019. A few weeks after Douša was identified by the migrant to CBP, Douša herself was brought in for questioning by government agents when she crossed the border back from Mexico using her Global Entry card, which agents had placed an alert on. Agents pressed her on who she was working with, whether she encouraged migrants to enter the country illegally, and her travel plans.
At the time, the documents show, CBP was investigating Douša for possible marriage fraud, and looking into the legality of the documents her and her associates issued to migrants. The results of their investigations are redacted. Douša was never charged with any crimes.
A few months later, Douša found out that she had been placed on the secret government watchlist that targeted her for interrogation while crossing the border. Special Agent Wesley Petonak, who revealed himself as the whistleblower this November, told NBC 7 San Diego that he believes these interrogations are unconstitutional.
“They're held at the border under the auspices of a ‘border search.’ But what contraband are [agents] searching for? That's the whole meaning of a ‘border search’: to search for contraband. And they’re holding these people for hours to question them about what is going on [with the] migrant caravan down there in Tijuana,” Petonak told NBC 7 San Diego. “It's not like these are pesky little rules, these are fundamental.”
Customs and Border Protection has declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.
Douša worries about the chilling effect that this type of surveillance has had on aid workers along the border. She only travels south of the border now with her lawyer, in case she’s detained again.
“I’ve talked to countless clergy, who feel relentlessly compelled to help, but they’re scared to do it,” Douša said. “The whole point of our work is to help people survive, and that means we need bodies down there. If we can’t go and tell the truth, we’re just left with the government’s story.”