The National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Immigration Committee and Pangea Legal Services condemn the targeting of immigrants rights advocates and journalists assisting and documenting the refugee caravan from Central America. Nora Phillips and Erika Pinheiro work for Al Otro Lado, a Los Angeles and Tijuana based group that advocates for refugee and migrant rights on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. Both were detained, questioned, and denied entry into Mexico in recent weeks after having their passports “flagged” by what they believe to have been Interpol. Phillips and Pinheiro were both involved with a lawsuit against the U.S. government filed in 2017 challenging its unfair and arbitrary asylum policies at the border. Their detention and denial of entry to Mexico caused undue hardship on their families and the communities they work with, and was likely intended to chill support for an ever growing number of refugees stranded in Tijuana, Mexico unable to enter the U.S..

Two journalists, Kitra Cahana and Daniel Ochoa, were also similarly denied entry to Mexico at the U.S. and Guatemala borders in January of 2019. Both have been documenting members of the caravan in Tijuana and were detained and questioned for hours by Mexican officials when attempting to enter the country to continue their work. “This is a form of heightened repression against immigrants rights advocates and journalists working along the border that we haven’t seen before” said Lisa Knox, Immigration Managing Attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza and NLG-SF Bay Area member, who was in Tijuana last month assisting refugees navigating the asylum process in the U.S. “The new Mexican administration should not be party to this troubling practice” she said, “and should refuse to collaborate with the U.S. government in repressing immigrants rights advocates and members of the press.”

Their denial strongly suggests retaliatory motives on the part of the U.S. government, which is being heavily criticized for its increasingly draconian treatment of asylum seekers along its southern border in recent years. Other volunteers, activists and journalists have also reported being detained and interrogated by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) upon re-entry to the U.S.. James Cordero, a volunteer who was bringing supplies to refugees in Tijuana last Christmas Eve, said that CBP officials showed him photos of other volunteers and asked for their names during two hours of questioning at the San Ysidro port of entry. Many activists with Pueblos Sin Fronteras (PSF), a group that has been supporting migrant caravans for years, have also been detained and questioned by CBP about their work with the caravans, likely with a view to criminalizing their actions. One volunteer was also asked by CBP whether they participated in the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota in recent years. Several journalists also report having Mexican authorities detain them and photograph their passports.

This demonstrates U.S. and Mexican government collaboration and surveillance of social movements organizing to support refugees fleeing violence in their homelands. Though deeply unsettling, this must not deter us from continuing to support the refugee caravans both politically and in terms of mutual aid, especially during a time of excessive state repression affecting those most vulnerable.

We also denounce the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols” or MPP which are a form of state repression in violation of international law and human rights obligations. For the first time in history, the U.S. government is returning refugees to an unsafe third country while they await adjudication of their asylum claims. The first persons to have been “returned” to Mexico under the protocols were reported two weeks ago and are essentially in a legal limbo, without access to U.S. based attorneys to help defend their cases in immigration court. The Protocols represent a flagrant violation of due process for asylum seekers who are already subject to prolonged detention, exorbitant bonds and a lack of access to counsel.

“This is part of a larger scheme to deny refugees the right to move and to seek asylum by forcing them to remain in dangerous conditions in Mexico and denying them the right to counsel,” said Marie Vincent, Co-Director of Pangea Legal Services based in San Francisco and the South Bay. Our organizations will continue to provide support for caravan members in the coming months. If you would like to get involved, please contact Charlene Khoo, NLG-SF Program Coordinator, at: charlene@nlgsf.org.

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The National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Immigration Committee is comprised of attorneys, students, and legal workers who work together to provide Know Your Rights trainings, engage in rapid response work, and run the Immigration Court Observation Program (ICOP). The Committee’s listserv of over 200 members also provides a space for practitioners to keep updated on changes to the law and policy, seek practice advice from other immigration attorneys and legal workers, and to support communities and organizations fighting mass deportation and the criminalization of immigrants.

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Pangea Legal Services stands with immigrant communities and to provide services through direct legal representation, especially in the area of deportation defense. In addition to direct legal services, Pangea is committed to advocating on behalf of our community through policy advocacy, education, and legal empowerment efforts.