Iranian-Americans were held by U.S. immigration agents at the Canadian border over the weekend, following escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Traveling Iranian Americans now fear being racially profiled by Customs and Border Protection as they re-enter the county.
CBP says they have enhanced security at ports of entry, according to NPR. Homeland Security is also on high alert as Iran’s leaders vowed they would retaliate for the U.S. airstrike that killed the military leader Qassem Soleimani. The country kept its promise yesterday when it fired over a dozen ballistic missiles at American bases in Iraq.
Today President Donald Trump announced an increase in sanctions on Iran, rather than using military force (right now), as a response.
Iranian Americans pay the price for U.S. conflicts in the middle east.
Roughly 200 Iranian Americans were held for up to 12 hours at the Peace Arch Border Crossing last weekend.
“I’ve heard from people who are saying they’re going to cancel their vacations,” said Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C., told NPR. “They had planned to travel abroad or, you know, leave the country for spring break. And people are already saying we’re going to cancel those trips because we don’t know what we’re supposed to do.”
Travelers were detained and questioned, while some were denied re-entry into the U.S. The New York Times reported that a detained Iranian family told Masih Fouladi, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), that an agent told them: “This is a bad time to be an Iranian.”
“Those detained reported that their passports were confiscated and they were questioned about their political views and allegiances. CBP officials contacted at the Blaine Port of Entry provided no comment or reasons for the detentions,” Fouladi said in a statement. “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.”
CBP denies that Iranian Americans were held and questioned at all.
“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,” said Matt Leas, a spokesperson for CBP.
CBP instead claims that security has increased at ports of entry overall and that processing times at some ports had increased due to the holiday seasons. According to the New York Times, border officers are not allowed to refer someone to a secondary screening based on their national origin alone, but it is one of many factors. In fact, agents may place extra emphasis on the country of origin if it is one that can pose an alleged national security threat.
“If you were an Iranian citizen returning from the British Columbia, you would be sent to secondary as a result of the increased tension with that country,” Girl Kerlikowske, former commissioner of CBP, told the paper. “It wouldn’t be the main factor in many cases, but certainly in this particular instance the country of origin would be the determining factor.”
While CBP denied any wrongdoing, immigrants’ rights advocates and attorneys begged to differ. Representative Pramila Jayapal and Representative Adam Smith expressed their concerns about the matter.
“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.
Many feel the treatment of Iranians is mimicking the circumstances that eventually led to Japanese internment during World War II.
The kind of racial targeting evokes the same sense of American racial paranoia that resulted in Japanese internment and rampant Islamophobia following the September 11, 2001 attack of the world trade center.
“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,” Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Seattle office, told Politico. “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 say detained Iranians were questioned about where they traveled in recent years, their work and education history, and were asked if they had family in the Iranian military. Iranian American historian John Ghazvinian was one of the 200 who was taken in for secondary questioning when he landed in JFK.
“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,” Ghazvinian wrote in a tweet. “I wanted to be like: my book comes out in September, preorder now on amazon.”