Newly revealed government documents provide details on the extent of the Trump administration’s retaliation against people who provided legal assistance to asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The documents link border interrogations of immigration legal service providers in El Paso in 2019 to similar treatment that journalists and immigrant advocates experienced in San Diego around the same time.

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project made the documents public after receiving them through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The new information provides context for experiences immigration advocates Taylor Levy and Hector Ruiz had previously shared with the media. Both were detained for hours and interrogated upon returning to El Paso from Mexico on different days in early 2019.

At that time, leaked documents showed that the government had created a database with files on “suspected organizers, coordinators, and media” with alleged connections to the so-called migrant caravans. The Trump administration claimed at the time that the operation affected only a small number of people, all in the San Diego area. In some cases, the U.S. government revoked some advocates’ U.S. visa or SENTRI expedited entry pass.

However, the recent FOIA shows that the practice also extended to El Paso. Levy and Ruiz learned that the agents who had questioned them were from CBP’s secretive Tactical Terrorism Response Team. They were flagged for questioning under suspicions of “providing assistance” to the so-called migrant caravans.

On multiple occasions in recent years, asylum seekers have formed in Central America to travel together to the United States. They were referred to as “migrant caravans” and widely disparaged by the Trump administration. In November 2019, a caravan of about 1,500 people arrived in San Ysidro, Mexico, near San Diego. Many members of the caravan stated that their goal was to maintain safety in numbers while traveling through Central America and Mexico, and to seek protection in the United States through official channels. President Trump referred to the group as an “invasion” and “bad people.”.

Advocates and attorneys traveled to Mexico to provide legal information about the U.S. asylum system, as they were forced to wait in Mexico for their opportunity to present themselves to U.S. officials and request asylum. Journalists also traveled across the border to cover the caravans. It was often on their return to the U.S. that they were detained and interrogated.

DHS’ Office of the Inspector General launched an investigation into the San Diego allegations approximately three years ago but has not released findings. Several lawsuits against the operation are also pending. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing some of those stopped at the San Diego port of entry. An attorney on the case compared the detentions and interrogations to COINTELPRO, the 1970s FBI program that surveilled American citizens who politically opposed the government.

The intimidation of providers of legal services for asylum seekers increases barriers to due process for people in removal proceedings. It is nearly impossible to navigate the U.S. immigration system without legal representation. Retaliation for providing services such as “Know Your Rights” presentations creates a chilling effect on attorneys and advocates.

The full extent of the DHS’ targeting of attorneys, advocates, and journalists is still unknown. The documents recently obtained through FOIA demonstrate that DHS’ surveillance of immigrant advocates has not been limited to the San Diego area. Levy and Ruiz’s cases shed some light on the secretive operation’s connection to El Paso, but there may be cases in other border cities. We must hold the government accountable for the retaliation that has occurred and increase protections against its recurrence in the future.