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Nearly 200 Iranian Americans were detained at the US-Canada border

They were interrogated for up to 10 hours about their political views and allegiances.

Vehicles line up to enter the United States at the border crossing between Blaine, Washington, and White Rock, British Columbia, on November 8, 2001.
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

In recent days, as many as 200 people of Iranian descent, some of them US citizens, have been detained at the US-Canada border and questioned about their political views, family members, and work histories.

About 60 individuals, including American and Canadian citizens, were held for questioning about their “political views and allegiances” at the Canadian border in Blaine, Washington, on Saturday, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Muslims in the US.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) confiscated their passports and held some of them waiting rooms for as long as 10 hours, refusing to grant them entry to the US, according to CAIR.

By Monday, as many as 140 more people of Iranian descent had been detained at the border. They were repeatedly asked about their birthplaces, family members, schooling, and work histories.

In a tweet, CBP denied it was detaining Iranian Americans and blocking them from entering the country based on their heritage, saying there was no directive ordering CBP officers to do so. Instead, it blamed long wait times due to staffing shortages and high holiday traffic.

But CBP also told Vox it’s operating with an “enhanced posture at its ports of entry to safeguard our national security” based on current threats to the US — which, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), could include an Iran-backed terrorist attack.

CBP agents have broad legal authority to detain and question individuals at ports of entry, but not to conduct interrogations for hours without cause. It’s likely the individuals detained on Saturday were therefore unlawfully targeted.

Though Saturday’s detentions appeared to be a reaction to the recent escalation of tensions between the US and Iran, the administration had already made it difficult for Iranians to enter the US under President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which also affects nationals of six other countries deemed to be security threats.

What happened at the border crossing

It’s unclear whether what happened Saturday was an isolated incident at one border crossing in Blaine or if CBP is continuing to hold individuals of Iranian descent for questioning.

Though CBP disputes that such people were detained, numerous individuals have come forward to give public statements to the contrary, including one 24-year-old American citizen and medical student. Identified only by her first name, Crystal, she told CAIR that she was detained in Blaine and interrogated for 10 hours with her family.

“The vast majority of people being held last night were American citizens,” Crystal said Sunday. “We kept asking why we were being detained and asked questions that had nothing to do with our reason for traveling, and [were] told, ‘I’m sorry, this is just the wrong time for you guys.’”

Tensions between the US and Iran heightened last week after Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general, was killed in an American drone strike near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq, which Iranian leaders saw as an act of war. The Trump administration has since been concerned about Iranian retaliation, but so far, no evidence of a specific threat to the US has emerged.

In a statement, CAIR said that according to one of its sources at CBP, DHS had directed CBP officials to report and detain anyone of Iranian heritage attempting to enter the US if they were found to be “suspicious or adversarial, regardless of citizenship status.”

“These reports are extremely troubling and potentially constitute illegal detentions of United States citizens,” Masih Fouladi, executive director of CAIR’s Washington chapter, said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called CBP’s denial of the detentions “simply not credible.”

“These were detentions, and that is unacceptable,” Inslee said in a statement. “By all accounts, this is detention, regardless of whether the waiting area has bars on the windows.”

CBP can’t legally deny entry to American citizens

CBP can detain and question anyone seeking to enter the US to establish whether they are a US citizen, whether they have the documentation required to enter the US, and what they are bringing into the US. To do so, it doesn’t need a warrant or any suspicion that an individual has committed wrongdoing.

There are, however, some legal limits on that authority: CBP guidance says that officers must conduct these investigations in a way that is “safe, secure, humane, dignified, and professional” and that they cannot conduct more intrusive investigations, including prolonged interrogation, unless they have “reasonable suspicion” of an immigration violation or crime. Moreover, once someone has established that they are a US citizen, they must be allowed to enter the US.

Usually, CBP will clear a US citizen traveling with valid documentation during what’s called “primary inspection” at the individual’s vehicle or in a booth at the port. But in the case of those questioned on Saturday, they were taken to a separate area for “secondary inspection” — what attorneys classify as a form of detention — during which CBP officials ask more specific questions about immigration history and travel and search for the individual’s file in CBP records.

However, a US citizen is under no legal obligation to answer questions about their religion, race, national origin, gender, ethnicity, or political beliefs. If CBP is requiring them to do so, that’s likely unconstitutional, civil rights advocates say.

Consequently, the ACLU has offered legal assistance to any Iranian Americans who have been targeted by CBP at airports and ports of entry.

It’s a familiar scene: When Trump announced the first version of his travel ban in January 2017, nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries, including those who held US green cards and had dual US citizenship, were held for questioning for many hours at airports across the country and denied entry to the US.

Legal aid groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, rushed to their defense, getting a federal judge to block the policy within two days. A later version of the ban, however, was upheld by the Supreme Court after the Trump administration provided what the Court’s conservative majority found to be a sufficient national security rationale.

Iranians who do not already hold valid visas or green cards are still barred from entering the US under the version of the ban upheld by the justices. They can obtain waivers on a case-by-case basis, but few have been granted in practice.

Inslee also likened the targeting of Iranian Americans to that of Japanese Americans during World War II. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government sought to weed out Japanese spies, resulting in the mass detention of about 117,000 individuals of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens, in isolated camps.

“We can never forget that Japanese Americans were detained in Washington state during World War II and [that] their constitutional and civic rights were removed out of fear and hatred,” the governor said.