Iranians, Iranian Americans Detained At U.S.-Canada Border Fear Crackdown On Civil Rights

"Once they take away the rights of one group, the rest of us are not going to be safe,” said one Iranian American detained for over 11 hours at the U.S. border.

It was a trip Heidi must have taken over a hundred times.

At least once a month for the last 10 years, Heidi, an Iranian with a U.S. green card, has driven through Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Washington, to visit her mother in Vancouver, Canada, before returning home.

When Heidi and her girlfriend — both Nexus cardholders who are qualified for expedited processing — crossed back into the U.S. that Saturday afternoon, they received an ominous orange slip that told them to exit their vehicle for additional screening. U.S. officials took their passports and Heidi’s green card away and questioned them for hours.

Heidi, who is using a pseudonym in this story for fear of retaliation, was questioned about her place of birth, her current occupation, whether she had ever touched a gun, where she studied, and her political views on the latest escalation between the United States and Iran, she told HuffPost.

Mere days before Heidi and her girlfriend’s detention, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian commander and one of the most powerful figures in the Middle East, had been killed in an airstrike on the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq at the direction of President Donald Trump, heightening tensions between the two nations and the wider Middle Eastern region.

Before the news broke, Heidi had no idea who Soleimani even was.

Heidi and her girlfriend were two of more than 100 people of Iranian descent who say they were held without explanation at the Blaine border crossing — in some cases for at least 11 hours.

Customs and Border Protection has since denied those accusations, telling HuffPost in an emailed statement that the “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.”

A CBP official told HuffPost that the federal agency was currently “operating with an enhanced posture at its ports of entry” due to the “current threat environment.” The official also attributed the long wait times at Blaine — which CBP said averaged two hours and extended up to four hours — to increased volume and reduced staff.

Lawmakers and other political leaders have since condemned the reported detentions. Former presidential candidate and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) tweeted that “CBP’s denial of these reports are simply not credible.” Rep. Pramila Jaypal (D-Wash.) also noted that the detentions were “a result of some sort of directive,” which CBP has denied. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is running for president, demanded that CBP clarify its policies and explain why those individuals were stopped at the border.

“What happened was real. They can’t say I wasn’t there for 11 hours on the hard concrete floor. That was real. It happened.”

- Crystal, 24-year-old Iranian American

The reports from the U.S.-Canada border have raised red flags for civil rights advocates, who say the detentions set a dangerous precedent for the targeting of Iranians in the U.S., as well as other Middle Eastern, South Asian and Muslim minority communities.

The pattern is familiar. Each time the U.S. has entered into a military conflict in the region ― whether in Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan ― those marginalized communities in the U.S. suffer the consequences, including a crackdown on their civil rights.

“If we can’t count even on our local leadership to protect us as Americans, we are barrelling down a very dangerous path and our civil liberties really are threatened right now. This is not a joke,” said Mana Mostatabi, the communications director at the National Iranian American Council, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for Iranian Americans.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has since opened an investigation into the treatment of Iranian Americans at U.S. ports of entry in response to a complaint from NIAC. The Council on American-Islamic Relations is also exploring legal action to find whether the federal government sent any national directive to local authorities in Blaine.

“We want to send a strong message to the Trump administration that behavior like this won’t be tolerated,” said Masih Fouladi, the executive director of CAIR Washington.

Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike on Baghdad International Airport last week.
Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike on Baghdad International Airport last week.
Wana News Agency / Reuters

Just days prior to the reports from the U.S.-Canada border, law enforcement across the U.S., including in Los Angeles, home to the world’s largest Iranian population outside of Iran, called on residents to report suspicious activity ― a message that critics said only promotes discriminatory profiling and surveillance of already vulnerable communities.

“What that does do is [scare] Iranian-Americans. It’s sowing fears and really opening up an already vulnerable community to additional abuse,” Mostatabi added.

Abed Ayoub, the legal and policy director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, warned of increased harassment and discriminatory policies by federal agencies, pointing to the precedent set by past U.S. administrations.

In 1979, former President Jimmy Carter ordered the deportation of undocumented Iranian students during the diplomatic standoff between the United States and Iran at the time. President George W. Bush created the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which targeted foreign nationals from 25 countries in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War. More recently, Trump signed the 2017 executive order that prevents individuals from several Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, from entering the United States.

“I do anticipate that this will get worse because of history,” said Ayoub, who added that concerns now are very similar to those in the past, when Iranians, Muslims, Arabs and South Asians were also targeted by discriminatory policies and practices. Ayoub’s organization has been receiving calls from members of the Shia Muslim community who are spending their winter breaks on a religious pilgrimage in Iraq and Iran and are concerned about the possibility of harassment and detention upon their return to the United States.

“When you begin to explicitly target based on national origin and profile based on religion, it is bad precedent and will lead to more harsh programs put in place,” Ayoub told HuffPost. “Nothing about profiling and nothing about these practices makes our country safer.”

“I do anticipate that this will get worse because of history.”

- Abed Ayoub, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

Crystal, a 24-year-old Iranian American medical student, was traveling back to the United States with her brother and her parents after a family vacation in Vancouver when she and her family were detained for more than 11 hours. Like Heidi, the family was forced to hand over passports and asked the same series of intrusive questions about their occupations, political views and travel.

“What happened was real. They can’t say I wasn’t there for 11 hours on the hard concrete floor. That was real. It happened,” Crystal said on a call to reporters. HuffPost is withholding her last name out of concern for retaliation from the U.S. government.

While detained, Crystal’s father pleaded for the release of his children, who are American-born citizens, but an official refused. Crystal also missed a connecting flight while sitting in a room with at least 60 other Iranians.

“I feel betrayed because honestly, I’ve always considered myself an American. In fact, I consider myself more American than Iranian. But I never felt less American than I did [that day],” Crystal said.

“Even though I was born here, I’m a citizen here, I pay taxes here, I work here, I go to school here, in the end, it didn’t mean anything to them. They neglected my rights,” said Crystal. “It doesn’t even matter if you’re a citizen or not, if you have associations with being Iranian, apparently that’s suspicious.”

It wasn’t until 1:30 a.m. that Crystal and her family were permitted to reenter the United States, without any formal explanation for their detention.

Meanwhile, Heidi and her girlfriend were not released until 4:45 a.m. on Sunday morning. When she received notice that she was free to leave, she could not stop crying ― overwhelmed with exhaustion, relief and anger. She immediately called her mother back in Vancouver and explained what had occurred.

“I wish you guys had given birth to us any other place other than Iran,” she told her.

In the aftermath of it all, Heidi could not help but reflect on a Persian proverb: “When there is a fire, wet and dry wood all burn together.” She’s worried about what will come next.

“We left Iran because we couldn’t be free and speak our mind. But now I am afraid to give you my name because of the consequence,” said Heidi. After this, anything can be expected [from this administration]. Once they take away the rights of one group, the rest of us are not going to be safe.”

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