Pastor asks federal court to sanction immigration officials

The request is part of an ongoing lawsuit in which the pastor accuses federal officials of violating her religious freedom by surveilling her after she officiated at immigrant weddings.

The Rev. Kaji Douša. Courtesy photo

WASHINGTON (RNS) — The pastor of a historic New York church is asking a federal court to sanction immigration officials, arguing they offered “false or at best misleading” accounts in response to a lawsuit and put her at risk of arrest in Mexico under false pretenses as she aided asylum-seekers.

“They consistently lied or hid information,” the Rev. Kaji Douša, a United Church of Christ minister and pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church in Manhattan, told Religion News Service in an interview.

Douša, a veteran immigrant rights activist, previously served as the chair of the New York City-based New Sanctuary Coalition. As part of her work in January 2019, she participated in a 40-day, faith-led “sanctuary caravan” to Tijuana, Mexico, near the U.S. border, where Central American asylum-seekers were gathered. While crossing the border, Douša was detained and questioned for more than an hour by customs officials

A few months later, NBC published leaked documents that suggested that the federal government had built a database of more than 50 activists, journalists and lawyers for use by various agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Douša’s name and image appeared with a yellow “X” across her face in the database, just above an indication that her SENTRI pass, which allows for expedited screening along the border, had been revoked.

In July 2019, she filed a lawsuit against U.S. immigration officials claiming that putting her on a watchlist and surveilling her violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and her First Amendment right to conduct her ministry, which included officiating at marriage ceremonies for migrants at the border.

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Her legal team’s latest claim, filed on Dec. 8, points to a recent internal report from the Department of Homeland Security that details how a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol official emailed Mexican authorities in December 2018, asking them to bar at least 14 U.S. citizens from entering the country, saying they “lack(ed) the proper documentation to be in Mexico.”

Documents obtained in the legal discovery process for her suit against the government showed Douša was among those on the list.

However, when the CBP official was interviewed for the internal report, the official revealed they had “no knowledge of whether they did or didn’t have documentation.”

The filing describes the email as an “unprecedented and profoundly improper communication directing a foreign government to take adverse action against named U.S. citizens, including Pastor Dousa, on false pretenses.”

“My government making me unsafe in Mexico is pretty unheard of,” said Douša.

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. Image courtesy of Kaji Douša

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. Image courtesy of Kaji Douša

The filing also alleges the government falsely or misleadingly claimed it did not revoke or suspend her “Trusted Traveler” status. Douša’s lawyers now point to newly uncovered emails accrued through a monthslong back-and-forth process, including one that features a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer who works with the Trusted Traveler program declaring “today I suspended her Global access as well.”

Representatives for Customs and Border Protection declined to comment, citing a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

More than 850 religious leaders signed a letter voicing support for Douša’s case in 2019, including leaders from the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Yale Divinity School, Muslim Community Network and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

RELATED: New documents show government targeted NYC pastor for officiating immigrant weddings

Douša’s lawyers have also uncovered documents, they say, indicating officials were surveilling her because they suspected the weddings she officiated for immigrants amounted to marriage fraud.

Douša has responded that she made “no representations regarding the legal impact our religious ceremonies would have in any application for asylum.” She also noted a document she helped write that instructed clergy to “make sure the people understand it is a religious ceremony and certificate.”

Targeting her for performing religious marriages, Douša argues, is a violation of her religious freedom.

“I was flagged specifically for a ritual of marriage, which is really the church’s authority to determine one way or another,” she said.

Douša says the case has damaged her “public witness” and that she now fears her ministry to immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border is not always a safe activity.

“God has called me to this work, so I will continue to do it,” she said. “But it’s really a shame that I have to do it in such a way where my government has endangered my life.”

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