Molly O'Toole, Los Angeles Times, February 1, 2019
Two U.S. immigrant rights attorneys and two journalists who have worked closely with members of a migrant caravan in Tijuana said they had been denied entry into Mexico in recent days after their passports were flagged with alerts by an unknown government.
Their stories are nearly identical: All four report being detained by Mexican immigration authorities while trying to enter the country, and eventually being turned back because the authorities said their passports had been flagged.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment Friday, and the Homeland Security Department and Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment. The Justice Department directed The Times to Mexican officials. Representatives for the Mexican government did not respond to requests for comment.
The two attorneys who were denied entry into Mexico, Nora Phillips and Erika Pinheiro, are leaders of Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit group based in Los Angeles and Tijuana that has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
In recent months, Al Otro Lado has sent lawyers to Tijuana to advise members of a Central American migrant caravan that arrived late last year at the Mexican border city. Some of the caravan’s members are seeking asylum in the U.S. Al Otro Lado recently partnered with two members of Congress to escort a group of asylum seekers to the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, where the group waited overnight until Customs and Border Protection officials agreed to accept the migrants for processing.
At a news conference upon her return at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, Phillips said Mexican officials insinuated that it wasn’t Mexico that had placed the alert. She believes the U.S. government is to blame, although she provided no evidence.
Trump administration officials have repeatedly accused immigration attorneys of coaching migrants to make false asylum claims. In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticized what he called “dirty immigration lawyers who are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum.”
Pinheiro, the group’s policy and litigation director, said Mexican immigration officials turned her away under similar circumstances Monday as she sought to cross into Tijuana on foot.
Kitra Cahana, a freelance photographer who holds U.S. and Canadian passports, said she was denied entry to Mexico twice in recent weeks.
After flying from Detroit to Mexico City on Jan. 17, she said, Mexican immigration agents detained her at the airport for 13 hours, explaining that her passport had been flagged. She said one official said that when her passport had been scanned, it triggered an Interpol alert. She said the official told her the alert had been triggered by “the Americans.”
Cahana flew back to the U.S. and later flew to Guatemala, where she tried to enter Mexico at a port of entry by foot Jan. 26. She said she was detained for about five hours and was again denied entry.
Associated Press photographer Daniel Ochoa, a Spanish citizen, said he was denied entry into Mexico as he tried to cross into Tijuana from San Diego on Jan. 20. He was detained for four hours before being turned back.
Like Cahana, Ochoa had photographed members of the migrant caravan, including those who sought to cross the border illegally. He said he too had been photographed by Border Patrol agents and that Mexican police also had taken a photograph of his passport.