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Customs and Border Protection denies targeting Iranian Americans at border

But Rep. Jayapal, others skeptical after hearing stories about hours-long detentions

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., cast doubt over CBP statements related to Iranian-Americans who said they were held at the U.S.-Canada border. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., cast doubt over CBP statements related to Iranian-Americans who said they were held at the U.S.-Canada border. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Customs and Border Protection has denied targeting American citizens and permanent residents of Iranian descent for additional scrutiny at U.S. ports of entry, but a Washington lawmaker who heard multiple accounts of such detentions happening in her district expressed skepticism of the claims.

“It appears that that was a result of some sort of directive,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said at a press conference Monday at her Seattle office. “The discrimination that we seem to be once against veering towards has a deep-rooted history.”

CBP denied numerous reports suggesting it had new orders to detain and question U.S. citizens and green card holders of Iranian descent at border stations. 

“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,” a spokesperson told CQ Roll Call via email. “Reports that DHS/CBP has issued a related directive are also false.”

On Sunday, the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) issued a press release saying it was “assisting more than 60 Iranians and Iranian-Americans of all ages who were detained at length and questioned” at the U.S.-Canada border crossing in Blaine, Wash.

Among the detained was Negah Hekmati, an Iranian immigrant with an American passport whose family drove across the U.S. border around midnight Saturday. The family was held at the border until around 5 a.m the next morning. 

On Monday, Hekmati told reporters that CBP agents took her car keys and everyone’s passports while they were asked to wait for further questioning. The agents asked about the family’s relatives in Iran and the United States, as well as social media handles the family used. She said she decided to speak out about the detention because of her children.

“It’s not OK,” she said. “For me, as an immigrant, I’m used to it, unfortunately. But they’re U.S.-[born] citizens.” 

Masih Fouladi, executive director of CAIR in Washington state, said other similar detentions at the Blaine port of entry started Saturday morning and appeared to exclusively involve families of Iranian descent. Many families reported being asked about their political allegiances — what Fouladi called “loyalty questions,” which  U.S. government asked interned Japanese Americans during World War II. 

Accounts of similar vetting came up elsewhere in the country. At John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, John Ghazvinian, an American historian of U.S.-Iran relations, tweeted that he was “taken to the special side room and got asked (among other things) how I feel about the situation with Iran.”  

In a later tweet, he clarified that the questioning lasted just a few minutes and did not seem aggressive.

“What I actually said to her was ‘I don’t really see the relevance of that. It feels a little political. And she dropped it,’” Ghazvinian said when he reached his destination in Philadelphia. 

A CBP official told CQ Roll Call that the agency was “operating with an enhanced posture” at all of its ports, in compliance with acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf’s Jan. 4 advisory upgrading the threat landscape for the nation. This followed Iran’s vow to retaliate against the U.S. government for its Jan. 3 assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani.

CBP chalked up reports coming out of Blaine to the cumulative effect of staffing levels, volume of traffic, and the heightened threat level. 

“CBP does not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation,” the agency spokesperson said. 

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, dismissed the agency’s denials, saying they were “simply not credible.”

“There are multiple firsthand accounts of CBP agents seizing people’s passports while they waited for up to 12 hours for re-entry into the United States,” he said in a statement Monday. “By all accounts, this is detention, regardless of whether the waiting area has bars on the windows. And it is in line with this administration’s never-ending vilification of our immigrant populations.”  

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