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U.S. border officers ordered to vet Iranian American travelers, memo shows

Jayapal seeks Customs and Border Patrol meeting over agency's 'leaked' directive

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called the practice of targeting U.S. citizens and residents at the border "absolutely unacceptable." (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called the practice of targeting U.S. citizens and residents at the border "absolutely unacceptable." (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal said Thursday that her office was working to confirm what appears to be a Customs and Border Protection directive to field officers asking for additional scrutiny of Iranians, Palestinians and Lebanese at the U.S. border. 

“This document, if verified as coming from the Seattle CBP Field Office, matches exactly the process described by CBP leadership in a briefing last week, our own sources inside CBP, and the credible and powerful accounts from travelers who faced extreme profiling at the U.S.-Canada border,” the Democratic lawmaker said in a statement that linked to a local paper in Washington state that published the directive. 

[Customs and Border Protection denies targeting Iranian Americans at border]

Jayapal, who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she has requested an immediate meeting with the director of the CBP’s Seattle field office, which oversees operations at 67 ports of entry along the northern U.S. border, including those in Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. 

It is unclear exactly when the apparent CBP directive was sent out, but the orders appear to back up claims by dozens of American citizens and permanent residents of Iranian heritage who said they were held for hours earlier this month as they tried to return home to the United States through the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Wash.

A CBP spokesperson, when asked about the directive, told CQ Roll Call that the agency “does not comment on leaked documents.”

The spokesperson pointed to the agency’s previous statement on the matter, which noted that secondary inspection “referrals are based on factors that could include the individual’s activities, associations and travel patterns. As a result, some travelers may experience increased wait times and subsequent interviews.”

“CBP has established strict oversight policies and procedures to ensure traveler screening practices adhere to all constitutional and statutory requirements,” according the agency statement.

However, CBP initially called reports of its officers detaining Iranian-Americans and others as “false” and denied it had issued a directive to do so.

The directive published by The Northern Light of Blaine, Wash., and later obtained by CNN, notes a high threat alert for the nation after the U.S. directed a targeted air strike killing Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3. The document asks border officers to increase vetting of “all individuals” born after 1961 and before 2001 with ties to Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinian region. It requires that the officers ask travelers about their faith, and gauge if they exhibit “extremist ideology or links to terrorism,” criminality, or “deceptive behavior.” 

Jayapal noted that U.S. citizens and permanent residents were not exempt from this scrutiny.

“This is absolutely unacceptable, and it reminds us of the dark times in our country’s history,” she said. “We cannot implement loyalty tests or discriminate against individuals in the name of national security.” 

Jayapal and other Democrats have written acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, asking for documents showing exactly how the department and agency officers have asked for travelers to be scrutinized.

On Thursday, Jayapal’s office said that instead of producing any documents by their requested Jan. 21 deadline, DHS conducted a telephone briefing making it “clear that the CBP Seattle Field Office issued guidance targeting people of Iranian heritage.” 

On Jan. 5, dozens of U.S. citizens and permanent residents of Iranian descent reported being held for hours at the Blaine port of entry. Among them was Negah Hekmati, an Iranian-American mother whose family drove across the U.S. border around midnight Jan. 4, and was held at the border until around 5 a.m the next morning. She later told reporters at a press conference organized by Jayapal that agents took their keys and passports while they were awaiting 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.

Hekmati said her U.S.-born children were extremely anxious throughout the experience.

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

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the agency to get more information about its Tactical Terrorism Response Teams, which were mentioned in the directive and which the civil liberties group says have been detaining and interrogating travelers on flimsy grounds.  

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