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Christian Pastor Targeted by DHS for Ministering to Migrants Sues to End Illegal Government Surveillance

Rev. Kaji Dousa has been subject to intelligence-gathering, detention, and interrogation for fulfilling a requirement of her Christian faith.

SAN DIEGO — On Monday, July 8, 2019, the Rev. Kaji Dousa filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and leaders of these agencies to stop interfering with her legal right to provide pastoral services to migrants and refugees—a central calling of her Christian faith.

The Senior Pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City, Rev. Dousa has used her ministry to advocate for and with migrants and refugees, both within the United States and across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. Her advocacy involves, among other things, ministering to migrants, officiating weddings for migrant communities, and organizing prayerful vigils that are sometimes critical of U.S. immigration law and policy. This religious exercise and speech are clearly protected by the Constitution and federal law. But DHS has responded by targeting Rev. Dousa for heightened surveillance, detaining her at the Southern Border, subjecting her to extensive interrogation, and revoking a clearance (SENTRI) that allows expedited border crossing. These actions have both a tangible and chilling effect on Rev. Dousa’s ability to practice her faith.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that surveillance targeting the exercise of First Amendment rights is unlawful; a permanent injunction ordering the government to cease surveilling, detaining, or taking any other adverse actions against Rev. Dousa; and restraining the government from taking such actions against her in the future based on her speech or exercise of her religion. Protect Democracy and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP are representing Rev. Dousa in this case, and they filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

Pastor Kaji Dousa said: The Bible says: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in so doing you may be entertaining angels unawares” (Heb 13). Many people ask me why I serve migrants, as if this were a burden. But for those of us in this work, we know the truth to be quite different. To offer hospitality to a migrant, a member of Christ’s kingdom, is actually the privilege of hosting an angel. The reverse is true, as well. To reject a migrant is to cast away God’s angels, which I am unwilling to do. For this, my country has decided to punish me. But I will not look away. I will continue to look closely—to listen, to imagine, and to call us into a better way. Free me and my colleagues to do our work with migrants and we will find that better way.

Stephanie Llanes, Counsel for Protect Democracy, said: Targeting dissenters of U.S. policy was wrong and unlawful during the Civil Rights Movement, and it is wrong and unlawful today. By quashing dissent and aid to groups the Trump Administration seeks to dehumanize, DHS’s targeting of a pastor providing spiritual and humanitarian aid to migrants comes straight out of the authoritarian playbook. Protecting Pastor Dousa’s constitutional freedoms is essential to maintaining core principles of our democracy.  

Stanton Jones, Partner at Arnold & Porter, and William Perdue, Senior Associate at Arnold & Porter, said: The U.S. government cannot retaliate against a member of the clergy because it disfavors the people she leads in prayer. While this sort of authoritarian tactic might fly in other nations we revile as unjust, our Constitution and laws forbid it.

BACKGROUND

For nearly a decade, Rev. Dousa has heeded the call of Jesus Christ to minister to migrants on both sides of the Southern Border and at home in New York City. Her leadership of prayerful vigils through the New Sanctuary Coalition, a New York City faith-based organization, landed her on a list of “Anti-Trump Protests” that local ICE officials targeted for surveillance. 

In 2018, Rev. Dousa helped organize a mobile clinic of faith leaders who provided pastoral services, including prayer and church-blessed marriage ceremonies, to migrants seeking asylum in the United States. Lasting 40 days and 40 nights, a period of Biblical significance, this “Sanctuary Caravan” included dozens of volunteers ministering to several hundred asylum seekers south of the Southern Border.

Rev. Dousa joined the Sanctuary Caravan for several days in December 2018 and January 2019. Upon her return to the United States at the San Ysidro port of entry on January 2, 2019, federal immigration officials detained her for hours in secondary screening, subjected her to extended interrogation of her ministry, and revealed a troubling and deep knowledge of her pastoral care for migrants both at the Southern Border and in New York City.

On March 6, San Diego’s NBC affiliate published internal DHS documents provided by an agency whistleblower revealing that Rev. Dousa’s detention and interrogation were part of a government surveillance program dubbed “Operation Secure Line.” The documents included a list of 59 individuals, including journalists, lawyers, advocates, and Rev. Dousa, along with each person’s photograph and other personal information, including date of birth, country of commencement, and any suspected connection to migrants. For some individuals, a color-coded “X” appears over their photograph, indicating whether the individual was arrested, interviewed, or subjected to an adverse immigration action, such as having a visa or SENTRI pass (a permit for expedited border crossing) revoked by officials.  Rev. Dousa’s photograph was marked with a yellow “X” above the notation “Disposition: SENTRI revoked.”

In response to the NBC report, CBP officials said “that the names in the database are all people who were present during violence that broke out at the border in November,” during which CBP officials fired tear gas at migrants, including children. But Rev. Dousa was not present for any violence near the border in November or at any other time. The agency also told the station that “journalists are being tracked so that the agency can learn more about what started that violence.” The journalists who appeared on the list and who were detained for interrogation at San Ysidro reported that, like Rev. Dousa, immigration officials asked them no questions about November confrontations between immigration officials and migrants at the border.

What all of the people who appeared on this secret government list have in common is not presence during the November confrontations between migrants and federal immigration officials, but working to aid, counsel, minister to, or document the experiences of migrants.

Read the filed complaint here.

Press inquiries

Please direct any inquires about this case to Chris Deaton at chris.deaton@protectdemocracy.org.