Dara Lind

A secretive counterterrorism team interrogated dozens of citizens at the border: government report

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A new government report has revealed that a secretive counterterrorism team interrogated dozens of American activists and journalists at the border as part of the Trump administration's sweeping response to fears about a large migrant “caravan" that was making its way to the United States' southern border.

A ProPublica story in May first revealed the involvement of the counterterrorism team. But the new report, from the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, shows the unit's assignment was far broader than previously known.

According to the report, at least 51 U.S. citizens were flagged for interrogation — often based on evidence as flimsy as once having ridden in a car across the border with someone suspected of aiding the caravan.

Thirty-nine of those Americans crossed the border shortly after being flagged and were detained and interrogated. All of those interrogations, the report found, were conducted by members of the Tactical Terrorism Response Team, a little-known unit of Customs and Border Protection trained in counterterrorism, not immigration issues. The existence of the inspector general's report was first disclosed by Politico.

Tarek Ismail of the City University of New York, who's been investigating the role of the counterterrorism units and is part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking documents on them, told ProPublica that he'd never seen the unit's work detailed in a government report before. “There's so little information out there about the TTRT that it's astounding that the report talks about them in such a matter-of-fact way, as if it's nothing to be concerned about," he told ProPublica.

In the fall of 2018, thousands of Central Americans migrating together for safety had become a fixation of President Donald Trump and his administration. The federal government sent a surge of intelligence and security forces to the southern border in what it dubbed Operation Secure Line, which ultimately led to the dragnet interrogations.

The government initially maintained that it was investigating confrontations between migrants and agents. But the Trump administration then said it was looking into whether activists were abetting smuggling by “encouraging" migrants to enter the U.S.

Taylor Levy, one of the citizens targeted by CBP's effort (and who was involved in the FOIA case that first disclosed the counterterrorism agents' involvement this spring), told ProPublica the new report validated her suspicions. “I'm not paranoid, my friends aren't paranoid. This really did happen. It was a targeted campaign of surveillance," she said.

In one case, the inspector general's report says, two lawyers were flagged for interrogation because they had previously crossed the border with someone suspected of running a WhatsApp group associated with the caravan. In another case, a U.S. citizen was flagged for crossing into the U.S. with someone who was, months later, identified as a potential caravan organizer.

The report notes that citizens are only supposed to be flagged for border interrogations when they are suspected of criminal activity themselves. But officials were either unaware of the decades-old policy or ignored it. At least two senior officials told investigators that people could be stopped for questioning for “virtually any reason," according to the report.

In a response included with the report, CBP agreed to update its training to clarify that flags “should only be created for law enforcement purposes." It did not say it would limit future interrogations to people suspected of criminal activity themselves.

CBP referred ProPublica to its published response to the inspector general's report, and it did not comment on whether any agents had been or would be disciplined in response to the report's findings.

These Afghans won the Visa lottery two years ago — now they're stuck in Kabul and out of luck

These Afghans Won the Visa Lottery Two Years Ago — Now They're Stuck in Kabul and Out of Luck

by Dara Lind

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Fakhruddin Akbari is allowing his full name to be published because he is certain he is going to die. Akbari, his wife and his 3-year-old daughter fled their home in Kabul, Afghanistan, two weeks ago. They've been hiding with friends in the city, living on bread and water.

He should be among the lucky ones.

Instead, Akbari fears the very thing he was hoping would be his salvation will now make him a target.

Two years ago, Akbari won a rare spot in the United States' “visa lottery." He was chosen at random from a pool of 23 million to get the chance to apply for one of 55,000 visas to immigrate to the U.S. The U.S. was supposed to have finished his case by last fall. The instructions when he registered promised as much. Either he would be safely en route to the U.S., or he would lose his chance and move on.

But with the final U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan just days away — and as Thursday's bombings have added even more chaos at Kabul's airport — Akbari has almost certainly lost his chance to get out.

He has already burned the letters of commendation his relatives received for their work with American contractors or allied militaries. The Taliban already know, he says, that he's part of a pro-American family. His neighbors have told him they've been visited by strangers asking about him.

A March 2020 ban signed by President Donald Trump, citing a need to protect the American economy, prevented Akbari and visa lottery winners from entering the U.S. In response to a lawsuit by immigration lawyers, a federal judge ruled earlier this month that the government has to move ahead on processing thousands of last year's lottery winners. But the U.S. has told the judge it can't even start until fall 2022 at the earliest.

Several hundred Afghans are in the group. They may be the unluckiest winners in the visa lottery's 30-year history.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

The lottery isn't open to everyone. Winners must come from a country that hasn't had much recent immigration to the U.S. Applicants for the visas must also submit biometric information, pass an interview and medical screening, and complete several security checks.

Nouman, an Afghan lottery winner who asked that his full name not be used over fear of the Taliban, spent months tracking down police documents from the Chinese town where he'd worked for a few years, to prove he had a clean record.

Those requirements are still far less restrictive than other ways to legally immigrate to the U.S., which generally require being closely related to a citizen or green-card holder or having a job offer from an American company. In Afghanistan, interest in the lottery is so great that Nouman said it took him two days to successfully log onto the swamped website where lottery results were posted.

But unlike other visas, diversity visas — the type lottery winners become eligible to receive — are on a tight and unvarying schedule.

Lottery winners are notified in the early summer. After submitting their full application, they can only be interviewed at the nearest U.S. consulate once the federal fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Then the whole process has to be completed within a year. Eligibility for the visa doesn't roll over.

Usually, most of the annual 55,000 visas have been handed out by that time. But last year, two things happened. First, in mid-March, consulates around the world shut down because of the pandemic. Two weeks later, Trump declared that letting in immigrants would hamper the recovery of the economy, and he signed the order barring most types of immigrants — including diversity visa holders.

When U.S. embassies and consulates began to reopen last summer, a State Department cable disclosed as part of the lawsuit shows they were instructed to handle diversity visas last, even if they met the narrow exemptions to the ban.

Giving someone a visa is legally distinct from letting them enter the U.S., and critics of Trump's actions — including a group of lawyers who filed lawsuits over the bans — argued that even if the ban were legal, consulates could still prepare visas so that recipients could come after the ban was rescinded, which President Joe Biden did this February.

In early September last year, Judge Amit Mehta of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agreed with the argument and ordered the government to make up for lost time, prioritizing diversity visa applicants ahead of everyone else for the last 26 days of the fiscal year.

The State Department's bureaucracy took a few days to get into gear. Then it began a process that turned out to be far from efficient.

Officials compiled a spreadsheet of applicants who had joined the now-consolidated suit and were supposed to be prioritized, but it was riddled with misspelled names and incorrect case numbers. In a court declaration, a State Department official from a different office said the spreadsheet took “many queries" from his team to fix.

Once consulates and embassies got the correct names, they rushed appointments, often giving applicants little notice. The Kabul embassy wasn't participating at all, so any Afghan appointments were set up in different countries — or continents.

At least three Afghan immigrants, including Nouman, were scheduled for interviews in Cameroon. All three were given one day's notice to get there. (Nouman, at least, was able to get a later appointment in Islamabad, Pakistan.)

Many more weren't given interviews at all. According to court filings, some State Department employees told applicants who called the office handling the cases that if they hadn't officially joined the lawsuit, “you lost your chance" — which wasn't true. When a COVID-19 outbreak hit the office and workers went remote, the help line shut down entirely.

When the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, 2020, more than 40,000 of the 55,000 diversity visas were still unused — and several hundred Afghans were still waiting. Less than 20% of the Afghan lottery winners had gotten visas by the deadline.

That day, Mehta had ordered the State Department to reserve 9,505 slots, based on his estimate of how many diversity visas could have been processed if COVID-19 had existed but the ban didn't. When the case finally concluded this month, he declared that the government would indeed have to process those visas.

That opinion came down on Aug. 17, two days after Kabul fell.

In a response filed to Mehta on Thursday, the government offered to start processing last year's visas in October 2022. One reason given for the proposed delay was that processing older visas is “an unprecedented computing demand that will require the Department to implement wide-ranging hardware and software modifications." Another was that processing diversity visas would take resources away from dealing with the crisis in Afghanistan.

It went unmentioned that some people are affected by both.

Lawyers for the affected immigrants made an emergency filing this week, with testimony from several Afghans worried that they would be targeted by the Taliban precisely because they had sought to immigrate to the U.S. They're hoping the court will order expedited consideration for Afghan lottery winners.

The lawyers are moving to appeal for the court to order that Afghans get priority in the visa process. The plaintiffs' lawyers had asked the government to consent to their filing the request. The government's response — after several days of silence, delaying the filing — was to call it an “unnecessary distraction."

In a meeting by phone on Monday, according to two people on the call, another government attorney complained that he'd been getting emails from applicants “all over the world" and blamed their lawyers for posting his address online. One of those emails was a desperate cry for help from Akbari. “We are totally hopeless and every knock of the door seems like a call to death for us," Akbari wrote. “Please help us."

In the time since sending that email, Akbari and his family have made two attempts to get to Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport. The first time, he says, they were beaten back by the Taliban. The second time he was stopped by the United States. The Marines guarding the airport said they couldn't enter. The reason? They did not have visas.

Trump officials used secret terrorism unit to question lawyers at the border: documents

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Taylor Levy couldn't understand why she'd been held for hours by Customs and Border Protection officials when crossing back into El Paso, Texas, after getting dinner with friends in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in January 2019. And she didn't know why she was being questioned by an agent who'd introduced himself as a counterterrorism specialist.

Levy was part of the legal team representing the father of a girl who'd died the previous month in the custody of the Border Patrol, which is part of CBP. “There was so much hate for immigration lawyers at that time," she recalled. “I thought that somebody had put in an anonymous tip that I was a terrorist."

The truth was more troubling. Newly released records show that Levy was swept up as part of a broader than previously known push by the administration of President Donald Trump to use the federal government's expansive powers at the border to stop and question journalists, lawyers and activists.

The records reveal that Levy and attorney Héctor Ruiz were interrogated by members of CBP's secretive Tactical Terrorism Response Team. The lawyers were suspected of “providing assistance" to the migrant caravan that was then the focus of significant attention by the administration and right-wing media. Officials speculated in later reports that immigration lawyers were seeking to profit by moving migrants through Mexico, and that “Antifa" may have been involved.

The records were provided to ProPublica by the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a public interest law firm and advocacy group that received them after filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit about the stops of Levy and Ruiz at the border in El Paso.

Following revelations two years ago by NBC 7 San Diego that some journalists and others were targeted for questioning when crossing from Tijuana, Mexico, the Trump administration maintained that the incidents were limited to San Diego and a handful of U.S. citizens. But the new documents prove the operation went further — and raise questions about how many others were targeted.

While the records are heavily redacted, they provide a window into exactly how the targeting worked. They also show that the push was based in part on claims that were simply wrong — for example, that Levy met with members of the caravan in Mexico while they were traveling towards the border.

“This whole thing is COINTELPRO for dummies," said Mohammad Tajsar, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to a notorious domestic spying program from decades ago. Tajsar is representing some of the San Diego activists who were stopped. An “intel-gathering apparatus was shared and deployed through a number of different agencies and resulted in a dragnet that ensnared a whole bunch of people."

Responding to questions from ProPublica, a CBP spokesperson said in a statement: “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 organizers of these attacks. Efforts to gather this type of information are a standard law enforcement practice." The statement does not address the targeting of Levy and Ruiz or what role investigators suspected two lawyers in El Paso of playing in attacks on federal agents that were in San Diego.

The administration of President Joe Biden is continuing to fight several lawsuits filed against the Trump administration over the operation. The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general promised to investigate the allegations in 2019, as the CBP spokesperson noted to ProPublica, but it has not published its findings. The current head of U.S. Border Patrol is a career agent who was in charge of the San Diego sector when agents there were helping lead the surveillance effort.

Neither Levy nor Ruiz were told why they were being questioned. What they were asked about didn't give them many clues. Both were questioned about their activities in Mexico — specifically, if they had been to Tijuana recently. They were questioned about their jobs and educational backgrounds; Ruiz was asked about the funding of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, where they work as an attorney.

Both lawyers also recall being asked about their beliefs. Levy remembers an agent asking her why she worked for a Catholic aid organization if she didn't believe in God, while Ruiz told ProPublica they were asked about their opinions of the Trump administration and the economy. Government notes of their interviews provided as part of the suit don't reference those questions, but they do cite comments from both Levy and Ruiz criticizing Trump's border policies.

Ruiz ultimately agreed to a phone search, despite their concerns about agents reading privileged attorney-client communications, which is exactly what the agents did. The records note the use of WhatsApp to communicate with people described as “foreign national" — Ruiz's clients.

Ruiz didn't tell anyone about their late-night interrogation for weeks after it happened. When they learned the same thing had happened to Levy, and when the NBC 7 story appeared two months later showing that similar episodes in San Diego had been part of a deliberate targeting effort, the El Paso lawyers sought to find out if they had been on the same watchlist. So Ruiz's then-colleague Allegra Love filed a Freedom of Information Act request followed by a lawsuit.

This spring, they finally got a complete-enough set of documents to piece the truth together.

In late November 2018, writing up an interview with a migrant who'd traveled with the “caravan," San Diego-area border agents identified Levy and Ruiz as two of “three attorneys/legal assistants that most likely traveled to meet with the caravan." The redacted notes leave it unclear whether the migrant identified the two by name, or whether agents made the connection on their own. Either way, by the time that email was forwarded to San Diego's Border Intelligence Center, the two were identified as “ASSOCIATED TO THE MIGRANT CARAVAN DEC 2018."

In fact, Levy had not only never met with people in the caravan, colleagues recall she'd vocally criticized the caravan at the time. Ruiz had conducted some legal workshops for caravan migrants weeks before their arrival in Tijuana, when they'd been staying in a soccer stadium in Mexico City. Ruiz and Love told ProPublica they had encouraged migrants with tenuous asylum claims not to attempt to come to the U.S. and didn't have any further involvement with the group.

According to emails obtained in the lawsuit, agents were instructed to flag Levy and Ruiz (as well as three others whose information is redacted) in the system for screening people coming through U.S. ports of entry.

When Ruiz came back to El Paso after a night out in Ciudad Juarez in December, and when Levy returned from that January dinner, the port officer checking their passports saw an alert that they should be interrogated by a member of CBP's Tactical Terrorism Response Team.

The team's stated mission is to stop suspected foreign terrorists from entering the country. But the government has expanded powers at the border that allow it to stop and question civilians entering the U.S. Records produced in an ongoing ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit about the unit have shown that its members frequently question American citizens. (CBP did not respond to questions about the role of the terrorism teams.)

What exactly the interrogations of Levy and Ruiz were trying to uncover still isn't clear. Levy and Ruiz both got the impression that they were being accused of “coaching" asylum-seekers to lie to border agents. The newly disclosed records don't include anything about that, at least not in the unredacted text, but they do say that Ruiz “admitted to facilitating the migrant caravan by providing legal guidance free of charge and educate the migrant's with the Asylum process."

The accusation that telling asylum-seekers about how U.S. law works is “facilitating" their entry reflected a broader suspicion that asylum-seekers were trying to subvert U.S. law rather than accessing a legal right. One Border Patrol email from the San Diego side of the targeting operation, obtained in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by NBC 7 and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and shared with ProPublica, referred to crossing the border to claim asylum as exploiting “a loophole."

A Border Patrolintelligence reportfrom El Paso, written several months after Levy and Ruiz were interrogated and included in the newly released documents, cast further aspersions on asylum lawyers. The report states, “Mass migration from South America into the United States is said to be coordinated at some level by non profit organizations who wish to line their pockets with proceeds deriving from migrants transportation fees up to the U.S Mexico border, and ultimately proceeds deriving from the migrants paying for their asylum case lawyers once they have arrived to the United States." It goes on to associate this effort with “other groups such as Antifa."

The report also asserts, inaccurately, that Levy and Ruiz were “seen in Tijuana assisting with the migrant caravan."

Now that the lawyers know more about why they were stopped — and by whom — they are all the more concerned it could happen again. Levy has since moved to California but told ProPublica she fears retaliation for this article.

Ruiz still crosses the border multiple times a week for work. “I'm still super fearful," they told ProPublica. “I don't know if this is the day they're going to detain me again." The caravans and Trump are both gone, but “I'm still doing this work. And I don't know what sort of false accusations they can throw going forward."

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