Internal documents made public on Monday reveal that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) monitored hundreds of local protests against the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy as public anger over family separation reached a boiling point last summer.
The DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis circulated a detailed list of more than 600 planned protests against family separation during a national day of action in June 2018, according to agency records released to immigration and refugee rights groups under the Freedom of Information Act. Under the now-defunct family separation policy, all adult asylum seekers apprehended at the border were automatically jailed and their children placed in a jumbled web of detention facilities and federal bureaucracy.
Designed by administration hardliners as a supposed immigration “deterrent,” the policy provoked widespread outrage and protests across the country. Activists say the surveillance of the national day of action is just the latest evidence that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and others in law enforcement are using federal resources to monitor dissent and target undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers who challenge the administration’s harsh detention and deportation policies.
“We already knew that the administration had been harassing activists, lawyers and journalists who have been shining a spotlight on the family separation crisis,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, chair of Families Belong Together, in a statement Monday. “The surveillance of last summer’s protests is further proof that this administration is politicizing law enforcement and violating our basic civil rights.”
Intelligence Contractor Tracks Protests
LookingGlass Cyber Solutions, a private security contractor working for DHS, compiled the list and shared it with the agency’s intelligence office and ICE’s investigative arm, according to the American Immigration Council, an immigration reform group. The list includes identification numbers for Facebook Event pages along with the time and location of each protest against family separations, which were held in hundreds of communities across the United States and the world.
The revelations come as President Trump’s hardline immigration agenda and the mass incarceration of asylum seekers arriving in the U.S. is keeping DHS in the public spotlight. Today, Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan is testifying before the House Appropriations Committee, where lawmakers are expected to ask tough questions about the agency’s budget and spending.
In a statement to The Intercept, a DHS official characterized the list of protests as an “unsolicited” submission from a private contractor that was circulated during a time of “heightened security” due to planned protests near DHS facilities and “threats to DHS employees.”
LookingGlass intelligence analysts gathered information on the protests from Facebook and other public sources. Migrant rights activists, however, say the surveillance still has a “chilling” effect on movements, and they are warning lawmakers this week that DHS is using federal resources to target opponents of Trump’s hardline agenda.
“We’re just seeing that DHS having an expanded budget means an expansion in policing and a reduction in freedoms, not just for immigrants, but for everyone,” said Jacinta Gonzales, an organizer with the Latinx and Chicanx group, Mijente, in an interview.
Immigrants Targeted for Challenging ICE
Gonzales has experienced the impact of this heightened policing firsthand. Despite being a U.S. citizen, Gonzales says she was held in solitary confinement on behalf of immigration officials in a Phoenix, Arizona, jail after participating in an act of civil disobedience outside of a Trump campaign rally in 2016. Gonzalez says she was interviewed by ICE simply for her Latinx surname, and was held in jail overnight, while the two white protestors were quickly released.
“As soon as there are people who are willing to stand up and push back and directly challenge the lies that are coming from Trump’s police force, there is quick retaliation,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales and other activists in Arizona have challenged policies at local jails that allow for suspected undocumented immigrants to be incarcerated up to two days longer than they would normally be on behalf of ICE agents. In January, longtime Flagstaff, Arizona, resident Jose Montelongo sued a county sheriff’s office over its 48-hour “detainer” policy after he was briefly jailed for failing to pay a court-ordered fine. Montelongo was quickly release on a $200 bond.
Just a few months later, ICE agents were after Montelongo and his family in Flagstaff, executing several traffic stops and home raids directly targeting family members over the course of two days just ahead of Easter weekend. Several members of Montelongo’s family were detained and interrogated about his whereabouts, including two individuals who were tackled to the ground in front of a home in Flagstaff, according to Alejandra Becerra, a local organizer. Images shown to the family members during interrogation revealed that the family was under heavy policy surveillance.
After Montelongo’s arrest, ICE officers told him that he had “brought this upon himself” by filing the lawsuit challenging the local jail’s detainer policy, Becerra said. ICE’s presence in Flagstaff had visibly increased since the lawsuit, and Becerra said it adds up to a clear case of retaliation.
The list of asylum seekers and undocumented activists targeted for challenging ICE and the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies goes on. Over the past year, activists say hunger strikers protesting conditions in ICE jails have been force-fed and tortured. In the Arizona desert, Border Patrol is notorious for interfering with humanitarian aid operations, and activists have been charged with federal crimes for leaving food and water for migrants braving extreme conditions.
Earlier this year, an ICE official in North Carolina said there was a “direct correlation” between high-profile immigration raids at courthouses and in neighborhoods and local sheriffs’ refusal to work with federal immigration officers in cities with “sanctuary” policies for immigrants. During the House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, Rep. David Price, a Democrat from North Carolina, asked Acting DHS Secretary McAleenan whether ICE has a policy of retaliating against communities that decline to participate in deportations. McAleenan said political retaliation isn’t an ICE policy, but his officers do make more arrests in public when local authorities refuse to enter into voluntary jailing agreements with ICE.
“If they can’t do pickups at jails, we have to go into the communities to do those arrests,” McAleenan said.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is attempting to gain control over the narrative as the president uses immigration to excite his xenophobic and racist base ahead of the 2020 elections. While the zero tolerance policy was still in effect, agency officials sought to portray family separation as a response to human trafficking and those who “transport aliens,” according to the internal documents released this week. Trump routinely frames his harsh border crackdown as an effort to curb the actions of drug cartels and human smugglers who prey on migrants, but Trump’s crackdown has not in fact curbed drug cartel violence or human trafficking or made the border any safer. Thousands of families have been criminalized and separated in the process.
“The documents show an administration preoccupied with monitoring and controlling the public relations fallout of their disastrous family separation policy rather than focusing on reunifying families and mitigating the trauma of separation,” said Katie Shepherd, national advocacy counsel at the American Immigration Council, in a statement.