A few months ago in October, Suri, an Iranian American woman who lives in Massachusetts, and three of her friends went on a road trip to Quebec City, Canada, to celebrate her 57th birthday.
The group of women, who have been friends for decades, piled into Suri’s car for a couple of days of sightseeing. The celebrations went off without a hitch ― until it was time to come home.
U.S. border agents at the Derby Line crossing in Vermont ordered the women, who are all using pseudonyms for fear of retaliation, to exit the car and told them they were being “randomly selected” for secondary screening. The women, all American citizens of Iranian descent, looked at each other with raised eyebrows. They knew this was not random.
“When you’re held at the border, you don’t see a lot of other people with blue eyes and blond hair who were also stopped,” said Suri’s friend Fariba, a 52-year-old saleswoman who has been an American citizen for over 30 years. “It’s challenging to travel, and it’s only getting worse.”
Earlier this month, soon after President Donald Trump ordered the killing of a top Iranian government official and the nation vowed to retaliate, news broke that U.S. border agents held nearly 200 people of Iranian descent without explanation at the Washington state border with Canada. U.S. Customs and Border Protection disputed the claim that officers detained Iranian Americans at the Peace Arch border crossing, but dozens of news reports described otherwise.
Some people were held for more than 10 hours. Nearly all of those held at the crossing were questioned about their place of birth, details of their family affairs, and were forced to hand over personal information such as where they worked, home addresses and phone numbers.
Activists and politicians demanded that CBP explain why those individuals, some of whom were U.S. citizens or permanent residents, were stopped, and the Department of Homeland Security announced it had opened an investigation.
A CBP spokesperson told HuffPost in a statement that the agency “has understood Iran and its proxies to be a very capable adversary for some time,” so it “leverages all available tools and information to ensure that individuals who seek entry into the United States are appropriately screened.”
The spokesperson added that CBP officers perform additional screening on “individuals who present a known risk or individuals about whom we need more information to make a determination of risk,” and that such referrals can be based on that “individual’s activities, associations and travel patterns,” resulting in “increased wait times and subsequent interviews.”
But the incident in Washington state was not the first of its kind — nor is it likely to be the last. People of Iranian descent, including Americans, permanent U.S. residents and those traveling with valid visas, have long been harassed at U.S. border crossings, according to experts and the individuals themselves, who described strikingly similar experiences to HuffPost.
Whether entering the U.S. by car like Suri or coming through airports, people of Iranianian heritage have consistently faced additional screening whenever they travel.
On Monday night, CBP officials at Logan International Airport in Massachusetts denied entry to a 24-year-old Iranian national and put him on a plane back to Iran despite a federal court order to delay his removal and his valid student visa to take courses at Northeastern University.
Ryan Costello, the policy director at the National Iranian American Council, told HuffPost he saw an increase of Iranianian students reporting trouble at the border starting late last summer when students attempted to reenter the U.S. for the start of the 2019 fall semester. His organization dealt with at least a couple dozen students who were subjected to harsh interrogation upon landing, subsequently had their visas rejected at the ports of entry and were forced to return to Iran.
“We have gotten a massive uptick of complaints throughout the entire Trump administration, but the last six months or so have been far worse,” Costello said.
It was just so disappointing to be treated differently because of my place of birth. I didn’t choose to be born in Iran, but I chose to be in the U.S. Mike, 55-year-old Iranian American
Given Trump’s calls to ban Muslims from the U.S., a travel ban that restricts Iranian visitors, and hostility between the U.S. and Iran, experts and Iranian Americans fear these types of stops will become more common.
Mahsa Khanbabai, an immigration attorney based in Boston, said she’s seen an uptick of cases of Iranian Americans having trouble at the border within the last six months as political tensions escalate between the U.S. and Iran. American citizens of Iranian descent, in particular, are being asked intrusive questions about their personal background and their opinions on political events, Khanbabai said.
“Having this broad brush apply to all Iranians and Iranian Americans is clearly wrong and doesn’t achieve more safety for us as a country,” Khanbabai said. “The administration’s very open antagonism to immigrants and to people from the Middle East has given individual CBP officers this sense that they can do whatever they want like it’s the Wild West.”
Green card holders are increasingly having their electronic devices confiscated for long periods of time, Khanbabai said. Meanwhile, Iranian nationals, particularly students and religious scholars who hold valid visas to enter the U.S., are being subjected to removal and even five-year bans.
This type of discriminatory questioning of Iranian Americans and others has been a problem for more than a decade, said Hina Shamsi, the director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. But under Trump, people are on especially high alert.
“Our concerns are heightened now because the Trump administration makes a point of treating people as outsiders based on their religion, national origin, race or ethnicity,” Shamsi added.
At the Vermont border crossing, Suri said agents asked her about her previous trips to Iran, the whereabouts of her children and why she held on to her Iranian passport as a U.S. citizen. Fariba said agents took away her U.S. and Iranian passports and directed her to write out her full name, phone number, email addresses and other personal information for the officer.
Fariba had been traveling to Iran regularly for the past few years to care for her ill father until he passed away last March. She said the border official kept inquiring about her dead father, even after she said multiple times that he was deceased. Fariba suspects the officer was trying to catch her in a lie.
“It was very bothersome, but I kept answering the same questions,” Fariba said. “There is really nothing you can say or do to stop this. They made me feel very uncomfortable.”
Suri and her friends are trying to push out the memory of what occurred at the border and instead relive the happier moments from the trip. But it’s hard not to think about how they were singled out, particularly when they consider how quickly they accepted that the questions and demands were to be expected as Iranian Americans.
“The painful part for us after reflecting on the way home was looking at how we have accepted this,” Suri said. “That this was a normal thing for us to be subjected to and treated this way. It’s sad.”
Mike, a Bay Area executive and U.S. citizen who was born in Iran, had a similarly unsettling experience last week when he was returning to the U.S. with his family after a ski trip to Calgary. He noticed a glaring “X” printed on his entry slip indicating he needed secondary screening, even though the frequent international traveler holds global entry authorization that typically lets him quickly reenter the U.S. at airports.
Mike, who is using a pseudonym in fear of backlash at work, was separated from his family and questioned about his last visit to Iran and whether he served in the country’s mandatory draft. The 55-year-old hasn’t set foot in Iran since he left the country when he was just 13 years old in 1978.
“It was just so disappointing to be treated differently because of my place of birth,” Mike said. “I didn’t choose to be born in Iran, but I chose to be in the U.S.”
This wasn’t the first time Mike was stopped and questioned about his Iranian heritage upon entering the U.S. He filed a complaint with Homeland Security about the treatment he received at the border in 2002. This time, he was a bit better prepared and was able to push back.
“I had all my answers ready. I was confident,” said Mike. “If I’m prepared, I can respond better. I have rehearsed a lot of these situations in my head already.”
Border officials eventually released Mike after nearly an hour. But when he thinks about the hourslong detention of people of Iranian descent in Washington, he has one thought: “It could have been us.”