New York Pastor Who Was Put Under Surveillance After Working With Illegal Immigrants at the Border Sues US Government

The Rev. Kaji Douša. Courtesy photo

A prominent Manhattan pastor has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that U.S. officials violated her religious freedom when she was put on a watchlist over her ministry to migrants at the border.

The Rev. Kaji Douša, senior pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church and longtime advocate for immigrants’ rights, was the only clergy member listed in a secret government database created to collect information on the caravan of Central American migrants that traveled through Mexico toward the U.S. border last fall.

Her lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection argues that placing her on the watchlist and surveilling her violated her First Amendment rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“I think that what ICE and CBP and DHS are doing is not legal,” Douša told Religion News Service “There is so much rhetoric about so-called illegal immigration, and I don’t understand why people who say ‘do it legally’ don’t apply those same standards to their own government.”

Working with the New Sanctuary Coalition, an immigrant advocacy organization, Douša participated in a 40-day “Sanctuary Caravan” of faith leaders in Tijuana, Mexico, late last year to provide pastoral services to hundreds of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. When she returned to the U.S. in January, federal immigration officials detained her for several hours and interrogated her about her work ministering to migrants at the border and in New York City.

“They interrogated her about her motives,” the complaint states. “They interrogated her about her associations. They revealed to Pastor Douša that they had collected detailed information about her and her pastoral work. And they revoked the access she had previously been granted to expedited border crossing.”

The Rev. Kaji Douša
as she appears in an
alleged government
database. According
to documents leaked
to NBC, the yellow
“X” indicates her
SENTRI status has
been revoked. Photo
courtesy of Kaji Douša

Under a program dubbed Operation Secure Line and revealed through leaked DHS documents obtained by San Diego’s NBC affiliate in March, the federal government targeted more than 50 journalists, lawyers and immigration advocates and subjected them to repeated questioning by border authorities.

The documents included Douša’s name and photo with a yellow “X” across her face, reportedly denoting that her Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, or SENTRI, pass to expedite border crossings had been revoked, apparently due to her connection with the migrants.

ICE declined to comment on the allegations due to the pending litigation.

Douša, a United Church of Christ pastor, has spent years ministering to migrants, both at her Park Avenue church and previously as a pastor at the United Church of Christ of La Mesa, near the border in California.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service, Aysha Khan