Posted by Guest on March 28, 2019 in Blog

By Claire Bechtel

In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tracked “Anti-Trump” protests in New York City last summer. Documents obtained by the Nation show that ICE complied a spreadsheet featuring detailed information about 12 protests that occurred over a three-week period between July 31 and August 17, 2018. The spreadsheet was distributed to an undisclosed number of recipients, including at least one DHS supervisor, and featured the time, date, location, and purpose of the protests. It also included the number of people who signed up for each protest on Facebook, suggesting that ICE was monitoring social media.

According to the spreadsheet, most of the protests were organized in opposition to the Trump Administration’s family separation policy. One protest was planned in response to an event hosted by Identity Evropa, the white supremacist group now rebranded as the American Identity Movement. That event was not included in the spreadsheet.

Indeed, the events listed in the spreadsheet, and those excluded, suggest bias on the part of its author. DHS officials claimed the spreadsheet was created to provide “situational awareness.” This claim is dubious, but no matter the intent, the effects could be harmful.

That federal law enforcement is monitoring nonviolent rallies could lead to a decrease in protests and have a broader chilling effect on important First Amendment-protected activities. This would limit political discourse and jeopardize the vital right of petitioning the government “for a redress of grievances.”

Unnecessary surveillance is a veiled censorship threat and has the potential to undermine First Amendment rights. While many are rightly concerned, these practices have been operationalized and predate the Trump Administration. As Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center for Justice noted in Just Security, revelations like this are “hardly surprising given the immense growth in DHS’s intelligence gathering programs during and since the Obama administration, and the lack of meaningful standards, safeguards, and oversight of their operation these activities have become.” Government surveillance is only increasing, regardless of political party, and without public awareness and consent.

These revelations and others demonstrate the urgent need for Congressional oversight of government surveillance. Protests and demonstrations are fundamental to our democracy and have been utilized by countless Americans throughout history to express their beliefs and discontent with the government. Nonviolent demonstrations and broad political discourse should be encouraged, not restrained.


Claire Bechtel is a Spring 2019 intern at the Arab American Institute.