(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF POLITICO)
Border stops for people of Iranian descent spark outrage
The reaction to the detentions at a Canadian crossing and a New York airport came after the U.S. killing of an Iranian military commander.
Reports of Iranians and Iranian-Americans being detained for questioning upon entering the U.S. kicked off a furor on Sunday from Washington state to Washington, D.C., marking a new domestic blow back to the Trump administration’s targeted killing of a key Iranian leader.
The Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim civil liberties group, said on Sunday that more than 60 people of Iranian descent, including American citizens, were held for hours long periods of questioning over the weekend at the Peace Arch checkpoint in Blaine, Wash., along the border with Canada. CAIR noted that many Iranian-Americans would continue to approach the port of entry over the weekend as some return to the U.S. after attending an Iranian pop concert Saturday in Vancouver.
The initial reports and the backlash they triggered — with references to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II — highlighted the potential risks inside the U.S. even before the fierce retaliation promised by the Iranian government for the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite paramilitary forces, by a U.S. military drone on Thursday.
CAIR said in its statement that a source at U.S. Customs and Border Protection had reported that the agency received a national directive from the Department of Homeland Security to “‘report’ and detain anyone with Iranian heritage entering the country who is deemed potentially suspicious or ‘adversarial,’ regardless of citizenship status.”
“We are working to verify reports of a broad nationwide directive to detain Iranian-Americans at ports of entry so that we can provide community members with accurate travel guidance,” Masih Fouladi, executive director of CAIR’s Washington chapter, said in a statement.
Len Saunders, an immigration attorney in Blaine, said his contacts through CBP indicated that headquarters in Washington had ordered new vetting procedures, which appear to be directed toward people born in Iran, that require port directors to sign off on admitting anyone held for questioning.
A CBP spokesperson denied that DHS or the agency had issued any such directive.
“Social media posts that CBP is detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S. because of their country of origin are false,” the spokesperson said.
The agency says it often adjusts operations and staffing to balance security needs with lawful travel and trade. Processing times at the Blaine port of entry reached an average of two hours Saturday evening, though CBP said some travelers waited up to four hours to cross.
Sam Sadr, who lives in North Vancouver, said he was held for nearly nine hours at the Peace Arch border crossing on Saturday after the birthplace printed on his Canadian passport caught the attention of the U.S. customs officer.
Sadr, who was born in Tehran, told POLITICO he was on his way to Seattle for the day with his family. The officer, he said, asked him to pull over and go into the border office to provide more information.
Sadr recalled arriving at the border at 11:07 a.m. Pacific time. He and his family were finally allowed to enter the U.S. around 7:45 p.m.
In between those times, the officers took their passports and asked lots of questions, he said. After a couple of hours, the officers asked the same questions again.
They wanted to know where they were coming from, where they went to school, whether they had military backgrounds and whether they had firearms licences, Sadr said.
“Why me? Why my parents? Why my sisters, brothers? I don’t know,” said Sadr, a professional photographer who received his Canadian citizenship two years ago.
“We are innocent. … This completely discriminates.”
While he was waiting, he said, he saw many other people of Iranian descent also held up at the border crossing. He said some people, including officers, appeared to be frustrated with the situation.
Sadr, who left Iran more than 12 years ago, said he and his family stayed in the U.S. for only about an hour since it was so late and the stores had closed.
Asked for comment on Sadr’s story and to explain the discrepancy between the “four hours” figure in CBP’s statement and Sadr’s nearly nine hour ordeal, a CBP spokesperson said the agency stood by their earlier statement.
Attorneys monitoring the situation at the border in Washington state said they had not seen any evidence that American citizens with Iranian ties were denied entry to the U.S. Those being held for questioning are now being processed more quickly — within 30 to 60 minutes, rather than upwards of 10 hours as some experienced on Saturday, said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Seattle office.
“It doesn’t make any sense, because these are individuals who are U.S. citizens and don’t have any individualized suspicion associated with them, other than the fact that they’re Iranian or of Iranian heritage,” he said. “What’s clear is that they are being targeted for the secondary inspection because of their Iranian background, and there must be some kind of directive” to CBP officers to pull them over, he added.
Attorneys in Washington state said CBP officers’ questions focused on travelers’ family members and where they went to school or worked, as well as whether they or a relative had any ties to the Iranian military.
The questioning of Iranians and Iranian-Americans wasn’t unique to Washington state.
John Ghazvinian, an Iranian-American historian and U.S. citizen, said he was subject to additional questioning on Sunday when he flew back on Air France from a trip to Egypt.
“Well, just landed at JFK and — no surprise — got taken to the special side room and got asked (among other things) how I feel about the situation with Iran,” he wrote in a tweet that went viral. “I wanted to be like: my book comes out in September, preorder now on amazon.”
In an interview, he said that the first CBP officer flipped through his passport and asked him, “When was the last time you were in Libya?”, to which he replied, “I’ve never been to Libya.” The officer quickly corrected himself to say “Iran,” to which Ghazvinian told him that he had last been there in 2009. He then was asked more questions in a private secondary screening, he said, the first time he’s ever been held up when returning to the U.S.
Asked whether he felt he was pulled aside because he was Iranian-American, he said he didn’t “want to speculate on another person’s private thoughts or motivations, but [the officer’s] first question was about the last time I had been to Iran.”
Ghazvinian, the interim director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said that the officers told him they had flagged him for extra scrutiny because it looked as though he had bought a one-way ticket to the U.S., when in fact he hadn’t. The female CBP officer, whom he described as “very friendly,” also asked him in the secondary screening whether he had family members in Iran and what they thought of what is going on. He told them he hadn’t talked to them about the situation.
Then she asked him what he thought of the tensions between the U.S. and Iran, to which he responded by saying he didn’t think the question was relevant. “She said, ‘We are just curious about what people think about these things,’ and I said, ‘It feels a little political,’ and then she dropped it,” he recalled.
The events, which he called “inherently a stressful experience” and “nerve-wracking,” involved a five- to 10-minute wait and around three minutes of questioning, he said.
Soon after he cleared immigration and customs, he sent out the tweet and said he was “surprised by the attention it got. … It was not my intention to paint myself as some type of victim here. I don’t feel that way.”
“To be honest, I thought it was just funny and so I just sent out what I thought was a lighthearted tweet,” he said.
Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said the accounts made public thus far were “very disturbing” and were stoking fear among a population already sensitive to border issues, given the Trump administration’s travel restrictions on Iranian nationals.
“The government has a legitimate interest in verifying identity, citizenship or legal status at the border, but it has no business infringing on the constitutional rights of citizens and legal permanent residents by detaining and invasively questioning them about their associations, religious or political beliefs or practices,” Shamsi said.
“Let me be clear: Instituting xenophobic, shameful and unconstitutional policies that discriminate against innocent people, trample over basic civil rights, and put fear in the hearts of millions do not make us safer,” Jayapal said in a statement.
Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Democrat whose district includes Blaine, said she was also investigating the reports.
Parmida Esmaeilpour, a director with the Civic Association of Iranian Canadians in Vancouver, said concerns related to crossing the U.S. border had been building in her community for several days.
“It’s my understanding that [authorities] said that they would be detaining or questioning people who may have some sort of suspicious ties to the [Iranian] government,” said Esmaeilpour, whose association works to encourage Iranian-Canadians to engage more in Canada’s political process. “But in practice we’re seeing that it’s actually being applied much more indiscriminately to anyone of Iranian background who’s trying to cross the border.”
A Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson directed inquiries to DHS.
One former DHS official said he was worried that in the future, as part of a tit-for-tat with Iran, CBP could tighten its screening of potential visitors to the U.S. even more “to take a harder look and a longer view of somebody‘s travel history,” which would lead CBP port-of-entry directors and officers to “err on the side of caution absent any formal guidance.“
Saunders, the immigration lawyer, said two of his clients, both Persian-Canadians and one of whom is an American citizen, encountered hours of questioning at two different ports of entry in Washington state on Saturday.
“Why were 50 to 100 Persians sitting inside the Peace Arch port of entry yesterday for hours upon hours?” he said Sunday. “They were being singled out. I saw it myself.”
Andy Blatchford reported from Ottawa. Nahal Toosi and Connor O’Brien contributed reporting from Washington.