Border agents crack down on First Amendment rights

Border patrol agent tells student photographer to stop taking photos of port of entry (Photo by Alicia Vega/Arizona Sonora News Service)
Border patrol agent tells student photographer to stop taking photos of port of entry. (Photo by Alicia Vega/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Border patrol officers and agents regularly harass, intimidate and threaten citizens and journalists alike who take photos from public rights of way at border patrol entries and do the same when they take photos of agents either there or in the field.

Such harassment, including demanding people stop taking photos without a reason, is one of intimidation, said James Lyall, American Civil Liberties Union Arizona border litigation staff attorney in Tucson. CBP agents have a restrictive view of what the First Amendment allows, he said.

“People in a public area have the right to photograph,” Lyall said.

Because U.S. General Services Administration owns the ports of entry property, agents enforce a federal rule that allows photos of entrances and lobbies for news purposes only.

Teresa Small, U.S. Customs and Border Protection public affairs liaison in Tucson, will not discuss why officers use strong-armed tactics. She suggests that people who are going to photograph a port of entry get permission by the headquarters first.

The aggressive actions to stop photography is being challenged in the courts. Two human rights activists – both in California – filed suit after border patrol agents confiscated their cameras, detained them and deleted their images.

David Cuillier, former president of the Society of Professional Journalists and current director of the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona, said this restriction  “isn’t American at all.”

“There’s no invasion of privacy or harm,” he said.

Recently, a student photographer stood on a sidewalk along International Street in Nogales facing the United States-Mexico border taking photos of people crossing the border and entering the U.S.

It took no longer than five minutes for an officer to walk out from the Morley Port of Entry to tell her to put her camera away. He told her she could not photograph agents.

He told her to delete her photos and took her phone to see what images she had taken.

Some federal officials argue that the photographs could leave border agents more vulnerable to attacks.

“Part of why those rules are in place is if [border patrol agents] have someone out there taking a bunch of pictures of the outside, the exits and the entries, they feel like they could be scoping out the building for some type of vulnerability for attack,” said Peter Bidegain, a former U.S. Border Patrol public information officer in Tucson. “That’s a real concern for people on the Department of Homeland Security level.”

John Lawson, acting section chief of strategic communication for Arizona, agrees.

“There are foreign and domestic people who don’t like our presence, regardless of our intent to safeguard the nation. In addition to terrorists, there is the constant threat of cartels gathering intelligence on facilities and how to circumvent or defeat our security measures,” Lawson said.

Such arguments fail to carry much weight with First Amendment experts.

“I can’t conceive any reason why you can’t take photos,” said Dan Barr, attorney for the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona. “Not just [journalists], anybody can take photos.”

Alicia Vega is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

2 comments Add yours
  1. Well, you lost most of your credibility with me when you stated that the man in your picture was a Border Patrol Agent. From the looks, I’m pretty sure he’s a Customs Officer.
    Now, given the environment of today and how law enforcement is viewed and treated by the public, I can understand their apprehension. Go to any Police Dept.and take pictures of their exits, their officers coming and going etc. and I’m sure you will have several guys connect up to you and tell you to stop.
    On top of it all, in your report you said it was against the law (you called it a “rule”). If it’s against the law, I recommend not doing it. Otherwise, you probably will be “harassed” by law enforcement.

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