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Iranian Americans describe ordeal of detention at U.S.-Canada border

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Civil rights groups and lawmakers demanded information from federal officials Monday following reports that dozens of Iranian-Americans were held up and questioned at the border as they returned to the United States from Canada over the weekend.

Even as federal officials continued to deny that Iranian Americans had been stopped at the border, more Iranian-born people have come forward with accounts of having been detained and questioned, and a growing chorus of officials and civil rights advocates in Washington state came to their defense on Monday.

Negah Hekmati, her husband and their two children arrived at the U.S.-Canada border late Saturday after a ski trip, planning to return to Washington state as they had many times before.

The four U.S. citizens carried Nexus cards, showing they’d been prescreened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection for expedited processing. What they received, Hekmati said, was anything but.

When immigration officers determined that she and her husband were born in Iran, they told them to park their car and bring their children into a room where others with Iranian heritage were also being held. The 38-year-old interior decorator and her husband, a Microsoft engineer, were subjected to intensive questioning during a five-hour overnight ordeal, she told reporters in Seattle on Monday.

The children were afraid to go to sleep in case their parents were taken away, she said. “They shouldn’t experience such things,” said Hekmati, who said she decided for her children’s sake to speak publicly. “They are U.S. citizens.”

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Hekmati was one of several Iranian Americans who have offered detailed accounts of being pulled aside and questioned in the days since President Trump ordered the targeted killing of an Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani.

They said that officers took their passports and kept them waiting for five or more hours after determining they were of Iranian ancestry, a procedure that a leading Seattle immigrant rights attorney called illegal.

“What Americans endured over the weekend in Blaine is unacceptable,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Customs and Border Protection “denials of these reports are simply not credible. We will continue to push for answers to ensure that it does not happen again,” said Inslee, a Democrat.

More than 60 Iranians and Iranian Americans were questioned Saturday, some delayed for as many as 12 hours, according to accounts received by organizations including the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The reports came as border officials tightened security after the U.S. killing of Suleimani in Baghdad on Friday.

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On Monday, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Jason Givens said the agency continued to stand by a statement issued Sunday that said reports of Iranian Americans being detained or refused entry were false, and blamed delays on short staffing and other factors. Immigrant rights groups had not claimed, however, that people were denied entry or detained in the sense of being locked up — instead saying they were subjected to intensive secondary screening.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said at a Seattle news conference on Monday that U.S. citizens indeed were held in “some form of detention,” given that without their passports, they could not leave a room where dozens of people with Iranian ties were reportedly made to wait.

“This appears to be another attempt to target and isolate a community that very much is part of our social fabric,” Jayapal said. She is trying to determine whether immigration officers’ tactics result from a national directive, which Customs and Border Protection denies issuing.

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Jayapal organized the news conference, at which civil rights and immigrant advocates also spoke.

“These families were not free to leave,” said attorney Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a Seattle nonprofit group. “We believe that it was illegal” for U.S. citizens to be singled out for their Iranian origins and held in what amounted to detention, he said.

Masih Fouladi, executive director of the American-Islamic council’s Washington chapter, said his organization heard “tragic and troubling stories” of other Iranian Americans being asked questions akin to loyalty tests. He said the Customs and Border Protection denial was “counter to everything that we saw.”

Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who is Iranian American, said in an interview that he first heard about the border questioning from a man he had known for years — a friend of his late father. The friend said his wife and children described being held up at the border. The woman has hired an attorney and signed a declaration describing her experience.

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Iran launched a series of missile attacks aimed at bases in Iraq. Iranian state television said the missiles were launched as the opening of Tehran’s “revenge” for the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general.

Habib’s office released the sworn statement to the Los Angeles Times, after redacting the woman’s name at her request. Some other Iranian Americans asked by advocacy organizations and reporters to go public have declined for fear of reprisals.

In her statement, the dual U.S. and Canadian citizen born in Iran says she was held for more than six hours at the Blaine port of entry. She was traveling back to Washington with her 5- and 7-year-old daughters after visiting relatives in Canada for a couple of nights, she wrote.

“We arrived to the Blaine Border around noon,” the woman wrote. “I was asked by U.S. immigration officers if I had anything to declare. They then told me I was selected to go inside, with an officer. They gave me an orange paper to go inside. I thought it was about some food I had with me in the car. I didn’t know what was going on. They took my U.S. passport and my daughters’ U.S. passports.”

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When she entered the room, she said, a line of other people stood waiting. “I noticed there were other Iranian people being interviewed and there was a woman who had been waiting since 2 a.m. that day,” she wrote. “She was allowed to leave around 4 p.m.”

Another two hours passed before an officer interviewed her.

When she was finally brought in for questioning, an officer asked for her name and date of birth; the names and dates of birth of parents and siblings; and also where the relatives live and their immigration status, including whether they were dual citizens of Iran and Canada. The officer also asked their occupations and whether they had served in the Iranian military. Military service there is compulsory for all males older than 18, although some wealthy families are able to pay fines to keep their children out of the military.

The woman said in her statement that officers asked her to write family members’ names on a piece of paper while they entered her answers into the computer. They also searched her car, she said.

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Federal officers “brought books, toys and coloring paper for our kids, and they brought some juice and crackers for everyone else,” she wrote. “When they brought the food, I started to cry because a strange feeling came to me. I felt like we were in jail, detained for so many hours. The officers had been nice and I can’t say there was mistreatment, but there were no explanations.

“They were just saying it was not their fault and that it was a new procedure.”

The woman said that people of other ethnic backgrounds were processed swiftly. Some were quickly given a stamp and told they could leave, she wrote.

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“The motive is pretty obvious,” Habib said. “It’s now recognized by folks on both sides of the aisle that there is a threat of retaliation, and now I guess the motive of CBP is where that [threat] might originate — the problem is they’re treating U.S. citizens this way.”

Habib said he was troubled by the woman’s account.

“People talking today have compared it to the travel ban, but I think it’s important to make the point that these are U.S. citizens. This is completely different,” Habib said. “It really is about the government treating citizens differently based on where they’re from.”

He added: “That’s something that we haven’t seen since Japanese internment. I’m not suggesting this is the same severity as that by any stretch of the imagination ... but in the context of foreign conflict spilling over onto U.S. citizens, it is a haunting similarity in tone if in not in degree.”

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In a statement, the Japanese American Citizens League denounced the prolonged interrogations, calling them reminiscent of World War II internment of Japanese Americans.

“Our country should have learned its lesson when it targeted Japanese Americans because of our ancestry,” the organization said. “We must not repeat the mistake of casting suspicion on American citizens simply because of their family’s country of origin. Racist discrimination should not be institutionalized under the guise of national security interests.”

Read reported from Seattle and Parvini from Los Angeles.


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