United States Customs and Border Patrol subjected both Iranians and Iranian-Americans to more scrutiny in January 2020 in the wake of new orders from the Department of Homeland Security, although CBP quibbled over accounts of people stopped for hours without explanation.
The centerpiece of the issue was the Peace Arch border crossing in Washington state, where more than 60 Iranian nationals and Iranian-Americans were reportedly stopped on January 5, 2020. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said in a statement that its local chapter was assisting those affected.
“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,” the statement read.
The advocacy group’s statement followed individual accounts of people saying they were stopped and questioned by CBP officials because they were purportedly of Iranian descent, regardless of whether or not they had American citizenship. It also claimed that a source within CBP told CAIR that DHS “has issued a national order to CBP to ‘report’ and detain anyone with Iranian heritage entering the country who is deemed potentially suspicious or ‘adversarial.'”
The statement was also released by activist Hoda Katebi, whose tweet making the claim about a national detainment order was spread more than 43,000 times on that platform:
BREAKING: US CUSTOMS & BORDER PROTECTION NATIONALLY HAVE BEEN ORDERED TO DETAIN & “REPORT” ALL IRANIANS ENTERING THE COUNTRY DEEMED POTENTIALLY SUSPICIOUS OR “ADVERSARIAL” REGARDLESS OF CITIZENSHIP STATUS. 60+ Iranis held last night at the US/Canada border for 11+ hrs / thread
— Hoda Katebi هدی کاتبی (@hodakatebi) January 5, 2020
Another woman, identifying herself only as Crystal, told The Intercept that she and her family were held for 11 hours and questioned; Crystal and her brother were both born in the United States, while their parents hold dual citizenship in both the U.S. and Iran:
While still in their vehicle, Crystal said a Customs and Border Protection officer asked her parents if they were born in Iran. “Did you immigrate, or are you a refugee?” she recalled the officer asking. “What is your occupation? When is the last time you went to Iran?” The officer picked up a phone and made a call.
“At that point, we knew we were going to get pulled over,” Crystal said.
The officer handed the family their passports and directed them to pull into a parking area. “Why are you pulling us aside?” Crystal’s mother asked. “Is it just because we’re from Iran?” According to Crystal, the officer’s reply was both apologetic and ominous. “I’m sorry,” she recalled him saying. “It’s just a really bad time for you guys right now. Go ahead and pull to the side.”
Another, similar anonymous account in the Washington Post described widespread confusion:
A U.S.-born citizen who was traveling with her Iranian-born parents — both of them also U.S. citizens — said her family was held for nearly 12 hours as they were trying to return from a vacation in Canada.
Border agents never explained why they had pulled the family aside, she said, but they asked them several questions about a country her parents left decades ago, including what courses her parents took in college.
“My dad was like, ‘I haven’t been in college for years — I don’t know what courses I took,’ ” the woman said in an interview with reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she fears government retribution.
When her family and others at the Peace Arch crossing complained or asked how much longer they would be waiting, the agents seemed confused and bewildered by their own mission, she said.
As more posts appeared, CBP denied the allegations of targeted detainment on its Twitter account.
“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 agency posted. “Reports that DHS/CBP has issued a related directive are also false.”
However, a CBP official did tell news station KPTV-TV that people crossing the Blaine port of entry were put through “secondary screenings.”
The increase in border stoppages unfolded after DHS issued a bulletin related to possible cyberattacks by Iran following the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani ordered by President Donald Trump’s administration on January 3, 2020.
“We have no information indicating a specific, credible threat to the Homeland,” the bulletin said:
Iran and its partners, such as Hizballah, have demonstrated the intent and capability to conduct operations in the United States.
Former CBP commissioner Gil Kerlikowske told the New York Times that nationality is one of several factors agents take into consideration when determining who to hold over for secondary inspections.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that the agency is operating with “an enhanced posture at its ports of entry to safeguard our national security and protect the America people while simultaneously protecting the civil rights and liberties of everyone.” It also blamed “increased volume and reduced staff” for increased wait times because it was the first weekend of 2020.
However, CBP has made questionable claims in the recent past; months after Homeland Security officials said it was not separating immigrant families at the border, separate reports in both 2018 and 2019 found otherwise, though authorities have said that they were doing so to better protect childrens’ safety in those cases.
We have contacted both CAIR and CBP seeking comment and will update this article when we receive a response.