The United States government is waging a campaign against lawyers, journalists and activists who support the rights of migrants and asylum seekers and document abuses along the US-Mexico border, according to a new report by Amnesty International.
The report, published on Tuesday, details a pattern of border interrogations, travel restrictions, searches, criminal investigations, prosecution and other actions taken since last year by the US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice.
The actions comprise unlawful discrimination, targeting advocates for their political opinions and human rights activities, according to the report, ‘Saving lives is not a crime’: Politically motivated legal harassment of migrant human rights defenders in the USA.
“This is a slippery slope toward very authoritarian tendencies,” said report author Brian Griffey, a North America researcher for Amnesty International.
The arrest of Scott Warren in January 2018 was an early red flag, said Griffey. Warren is one of several volunteers with the humanitarian organisation, No More Deaths, prosecuted this year after providing food, water, and humanitarian assistance to Central Americans in southern Arizona. Thousands of migrants die every year crossing the desert.
Warren faced up to 20 years in prison for felony charges of harbouring and conspiracy, but his trial ended last month with a hung jury. At a hearing on Tuesday, federal prosecutors announced they are dropping the conspiracy charge but will pursue two counts of harbouring. The retrial was set for November 12.
After Warren’s arrest last year, US officials made public statements concerning their intention to prosecute lawyers and advocates on human smuggling charges for providing assistance to a Honduran group of asylum seekers, dubbed a caravan, in the lead up to the group’s April 2018 arrival at the border.
“It was clear that they were trying to do what they have since done, which is to frame lawyers, journalists and activists as falling into the basket of human smugglers, criminals and smugglers. By doing what? By exercising the right to freedom of speech,” Griffey told Al Jazeera.
Neither the Department of Justice nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment by the time of publication.
In late 2018, as larger caravan groups of Central American migrants and asylum seekers arrived at the US southern border, the Trump administration began stepping up its crackdown and restrictions on asylum seekers. At the same time, lawyers, activists and journalists crossing between the US and Mexico began increasingly reporting interrogations, searches and travel restrictions by both the US and Mexican governments.
Erika Pinheiro was denied entry to Mexico in January, separating her from her Mexican-born infant. The policy and litigation director for Al Otro Lado, a cross-border, non-profit legal services provider for asylum seekers in Tijuana, Pinheiro discovered she was the subject of an international immigration alert.
“It’s a really worrisome situation,” she told Al Jazeera. “They’re making it impossible for asylum seekers to get representation.”
Pinheiro has since been able to return to Mexico, but it is unclear what her remaining downgraded alert could mean for travel to other countries. Faced with uncertainty, she has not been able to travel to Portugal to visit family or to Central America, where she and her team represent 14 parents who were deported without their children.
Her colleague Nora Phillips, the group’s legal and litigation director, was also denied entry to Mexico early this year and has been unable to return, affecting her work with both deportees and asylum seekers.
In March, a US Department of Homeland Security official leaked surveillance watch list files identifying more than 50 lawyers, activists, volunteers and journalists working on asylum issues related to caravans at the border. Pinheiro and Phillips were both on the list.
“The people being targeted are also documenting rights violations at the border,” said Pinheiro, explaining that restrictions on people documenting abuses serve to keep information about what is happening on the ground away from the public.
The Homeland Security surveillance files also name Irineo Mujica, the director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a cross-border migrant rights group that was singled out after providing some humanitarian support for one of the larger caravans late last year. Like Warren, Mujica has been facing human smuggling charges, but not in the US.
Mujica and another migrant rights activist, Cristobal Sanchez, were arrested on June 5 in Mexico on human smuggling charges related to a caravan last year. After a week in custody, a judge ordered their release due to lack of evidence.
“We are the most visible people,” Mujica told Al Jazeera. “It was a whole show.”
The day of Mujica and Sanchez’s high-profile arrests in two different cities coincided with a meeting between high-level Mexican and US officials during immigration negotiations sparked by US president Donald Trump’s threats to impose escalating tariffs if Mexico did not reduce the number of asylum seekers reaching the US border.
“It is a political game,” Mujica said of the criminalisation of migrant rights activists and humanitarian aid volunteers.
In response to US pressure, Mexico announced the deployment of thousands of National Guard troops to its southern border, the expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocols forcing Central Americans to remain in Mexico pending the outcome of their asylum claims, and other measures. Mexican security forces have also harassed other migrant rights activists and shelters, Mujica said.
“These are very hard times,” he said. “We do not know how far this is going to go.”