July 24 (UPI) -- The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the FBI and two other agencies on behalf of three activists who say they were harassed and detained at the border as part of a secret government anti-immigration program.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles Tuesday and says agents of the bureau, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration Custom Enforcement targeted activists Nora Phillips, Erika Pinheiro and Nathaniel Dennison for their humanitarian work along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Phillips and Pinheiro are co-founders of Los Angeles nonprofit Al Otro Lado, which provides legal and mental health services to migrants. Dennison is a documentary filmmaker and established the Through My Eyes Foundation.
The purported harassment came to light in March when San Diego's KNSD-TV reported federal authorities had monitored a Homeland Security database of attorneys, advocates, journalists and social media activists last year following a surge of Central American migrant caravans headed for the United States.
"To the Trump administration, compassion is a crime," Mohammad Tajser, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement. "Not content to shut the country's doors to vulnerable families seeking refuge, the government launched a secret spying program to punish lawyers and activists who dared to provide for the basic welfare of migrants wanting a better life."
The lawsuit accuses the agencies of unlawfully monitoring the activists, a violation of their protected speech and association rights.
"The government's collection and retention of information about plaintiffs protected work violate the First Amendment and the Privacy Act, and chills their ability to continue their important work," it states. "This lawsuit seeks to undo this damage."
CBP acknowledged the database and said those identified on its list were present during violent skirmishes at the border last November. Journalists, it said, were tracked so the agency could learn more about what caused that violence.
"It is protocol following these incidents to collect evidence that might be needed for future legal actions and to determine if the event was orchestrated," CBP said at the time.
"CBP and our law enforcement partners evaluate these incidents, follow all leads garnered from information collected, conduct interviews and investigations, in preparation for, and often to prevent future incidents that could cause further harm to the public, our agents, and our economy."