Trump officials used secret terrorism unit to question lawyers at border, report claims

Redacted documents show link between operations in San Diego and El Paso

US Border Patrol agents are seen during a tour of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) temporary holding facilities in El Paso, Texas, in May 2019
US Border Patrol agents are seen during a tour of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) temporary holding facilities in El Paso, Texas, in May 2019

Newly released records appear to show a broad push by the Trump administration to use the federal government’s expansive powers at the southern border to stop and question lawyers, activists and journalists.

ProPublica reports that two lawyers were interrogated by members of US Customs and Border Patrol’s secretive Tactical Terrorism Response Team because they were suspected of “providing assistance” to the migrant caravan as it made its way through Mexico — at the time a focus of both the administration and right-wing media.

Officials speculated that immigration lawyers were seeking to profit by moving migrants through Mexico, and that “Antifa” may have been involved.

Public interest law firm and advocacy group, the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, provided ProPublica with the records having received them through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

The suit was specific to the stops of attorneys Taylor Levy in 2019 and Hector Ruiz in 2018 at the border in El Paso, Texas. It comes two years after NBC 7 in San Diego revealed that journalists and others had been targeted by officials when crossing over from Tijuana in Mexico.

Though heavily redacted, what the new documents reveal is that the operation extended beyond San Diego. It is not clear how many were targeted by customs officials for extra screening and questioning.

In a statement responding to questions from ProPublica, a border patrol spokesperson said: “In response to incidents in November 2018 and January 2019, which included assaults against Border Patrol Agents, CBP identified individuals who may have information relating to the instigators and/or organisers of these attacks. Efforts to gather this type of information are a standard law enforcement practice.”

The statement does explain why Ms Levy and Mr Ruiz were targeted, nor why two lawyers in Texas were suspected of having information about attacks on federal agents in California.

Ms Levy was singled out in January 2019 while returning from dinner with friends across the border in Ciudad Juarez for allegedly meeting with members of the caravan while in Mexico.

At the time Ms Levy was part of a legal team representing the father of a girl who had died in CBP custody.

Both Ms Levy and Mr Ruiz were asked if they had been to Tijuana recently as well as their jobs, educational backgrounds, and beliefs — including their opinions of the Trump administration and the economy.

The connection was drawn when the two lawyers shared their stories some weeks later and when the NBC story mirrored what had happened to them.

Documents reveal that they were identified as two of three attorneys who had allegedly met with the migrant caravan, according to notes from an interview with a migrant. Ms Levy had never met with members of the caravan and was a vocal critic of it.

Mr Ruiz had conducted a legal workshop for caravan migrants some weeks before when they were staying at a stadium in Mexico City. Migrants with tenuous asylum claims were told not to attempt to come to the US.

Nevertheless, both were flagged for interrogation by the Tactical Terrorism Response Team whose mission is to stop suspected foreign terrorists from entering the US.

A report written several months after the interrogation of the two lawyers spuriously claimed that non-profit organisations were seeking to line their pockets by helping migrants access asylum case lawyers and that they were associated with “other groups such as Antifa”.

While Ms Levy has since moved to California, Mr Ruiz still crosses the border multiple times a week for work.

The Biden administration continues to fight several lawsuits filed against the Trump administration over the operation, according to ProPublica.

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