The Slatest

Iranian Americans Report Being Detained and Questioned at Canadian Border

Four cars drive up to a point of entry. Four of the five lanes are closed.
Cars leaving Canada enter a customs and border inspection point of entry in Blaine, Washington, in February 2017.
Reuters/Chris Helgren

Dozens of Iranian Americans were held at the Canadian border over the weekend and questioned about their backgrounds and political views, the New York Times reports. Some travelers said they were detained up to 10 hours.

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations chapter in Washington state, more than 60 Iranians and Iranian Americans were held for questioning at the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Washington, on Saturday. Customs and Border Protection has said the reports were false and that some people had simply experienced delays because of an overloaded staff.

According to CBP, heightened general security had bogged down processing at the border. The Department of Homeland Security had intensified security at all ports of entry after Iran had threatened to retaliate against the U.S. for last week’s killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s military force. Soleimani was a powerful and popular figure in Iran, and state-run news there said millions attended his funeral Monday. Iran has said it will no longer abide by the full terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, and members of its parliament chanted “death to America” in their chamber on Sunday. Lawmakers in Iraq, who have expressed outrage that the killing occurred on Iraqi soil, voted unanimously to expel U.S. troops from their country. President Donald Trump has promised to impose sanctions on Iraq if the country acts on that vote.

In its report Sunday, CAIR alleged that DHS had instructed CBP agents to “ ‘report’ and detain anyone with Iranian heritage entering the country who is deemed potentially suspicious or ‘adversarial,’ ” whether U.S. citizens or not. A number of travelers reported being singled out for lengthy questioning.

The news sparked an outcry on social media. Some accused border agents of violating the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, while others accused CAIR, a prominent Muslim civil rights group, of spreading false rumors. CBP has said there was no such directive from DHS. “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 spokesperson said.

CBP said that some travelers had to wait up to four hours to cross because of the delays at the port of entry. But citizens and noncitizens of Iranian descent told the Times, Politico, and the Los Angeles Times about waiting for far longer, while travelers of other national origins were quickly processed. Officers are not allowed to refer people for a secondary screening just because of national origin.

The incident reminded some critics of the Muslim ban that Trump had instituted in 2017. Of all the Muslim-majority countries targeted by the ban, Iran had the largest population of U.S. residents and the largest population of people likely to travel between the two countries with regularity.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and other Democratic officials from the state said they were looking into the reports. According to the L.A. Times, Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib has said his office received reports of “probing questions” about Soleimani’s killing and family members serving in the Iranian military, which is compulsory for all adult men.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal said on Sunday she had been “working on this all morning” and that she was “deeply disturbed” by the reports. Rep. Adam Smith said his office had also been working on the matter. “It is unacceptable for the civil liberties of Americans and immigrants to be violated,” he said on Twitter. “We cannot let discrimination dictate our policies and actions.”