Target: Thomas S. Winkowski, Acting Chief Operating Officer, U. S. Customs and Border Protection
Goal: Apologize to activists detained for taking photos near Customs and Border Protection buildings and alter the enforcement of policy which prohibits the use of cameras or video recorders near U.S. border crossing points
With cameras and picture-taking such a ubiquitous part of our digitally-enhanced lifestyles, most of us hardly think to distinguish photography as a protected first amendment right. But as with all rights, the right to take photos becomes most obvious when it is violently taken away from us. Two American activists recently saw their right to photograph come into sharp focus when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents detained and harassed them–all for the simple, innocuous act of snapping a picture in a public place.
Environmentalist Ray Askins was standing on a city street in Calexico when he decided to photograph the nearby port of entry building. Askins, an American citizen who lives in Mexico, only wished to illustrate a presentation he was preparing on pollution concerns from traffic congestion near the border. But upon seeing his camera, CBP agents roughly grabbed him, handcuffed him, and steered him inside the building, deleting his photos and threatening to smash his camera.
Askins had committed no crime, but he wasn’t the first to be abused at the border simply for taking pictures. In 2010, Christian Ramirez, a longtime human rights activist, was returning from Tijuana when he noticed male CBP agents frisking women travelers at an outbound checkpoint. Concerned that these women were being deprived of their right to be searched by an agent of their own gender (and potentially being sexually harassed), Ramirez pulled out his cell phone to document what he saw. Although he was also standing on a public sidewalk, two private security officers approached Ramirez, demanded his ID, and ordered him to stop taking pictures. When he declined, the two men walked him down the bridge where they were met by seven more CBP officers. They grabbed his phone and deleted all photos of their fellow agents’ misconduct.
CBP security guidelines prohibit visitors at their facilities from using cameras or video recorders without permission from senior officials, but that rule should in no way apply to citizens taking photographs from outside these buildings in public spaces. Both Askins and Ramirez had the right to be taking photographs after legally passing through border checkpoints without being harassed by CBP officers. Tell the Chief Operating Officer of the CBP that brutishly enforcing their no-photos policy on citizens outside CBP buildings will not be tolerated.
Dear Mr. Winkowski,
Taking photographs in public places has historically been defended as one of the constitutionally-protected rights that Americans enjoy. Yet U.S. citizens have been repeatedly harassed, belittled, and detained by CBP agents–all for the simple, nonthreatening act of snapping pictures near port of entry buildings.
Ray Askins and Christian Ramirez are both activists who have been detained by CBP officers after taking pictures that illustrated environmental concerns and human rights violations on the part of your agency. If such breaches of conduct are easily observable in public, there is no reason that taking photos of them would stand as a violation of the CBP’s photography policies, which only apply once photographers are inside a customs building.
Detaining and brutalizing photographers for taking pictures in public is a clear trespass on the first amendment rights of U.S. citizens. I demand that you apologize to Askins and Ramirez, and amend your policies and training so that no activists face such harassment from your agents in the future.
[Your Name Here]
Photo credit: CBP Photography