Iranians held up at U.S.-Canadian border amid escalating political tensions, group says

Click to play video: 'Iranians held up at U.S.-Canadian border: reports'
Iranians held up at U.S.-Canadian border: reports
A new U.S. response to escalating tensions in the Middle East over the killing of an Iranian military leader appears to be happening in our own backyard. Paul Johnson explains. – Jan 5, 2020

More than 60 Iranians and Iranian-Americans were detained at length and questioned at the Peace Arch border crossing in Washington, a U.S. Muslim rights group said.

“Those detained reported that their passports were confiscated and they were questioned about their political views and allegiances,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said.

The council said more people were expected to cross the Peace Arch border Sunday morning following an Iranian pop concert featuring Masih and Arash Ap that was held Saturday night in Vancouver.

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A young boy walks under the Peace Arch during a ‘No Wall, No Ban’ rally at the Peace Arch-Douglas border crossing between Canada and the United States, in Surrey, B.C., on Feb. 12, 2017. Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press

An official speaking on background said that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is adjusting its operations at ports of entry due to the current threat climate, among other reasons, and said they weren’t staffed to handle such large numbers of people crossing the Washington border during the holiday season.

CPB denies a claim from CAIR that a national order was issued to report and detain anyone with Iranian heritage entering the country who is deemed potentially suspicious or adversarial, regardless of citizenship status.

“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. Reports that DHS/CBP has issued a related directive are also false,” they said, adding that at most, Iranians looking to cross the border waited no longer than four hours.

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But that’s not true for an Iranian-American woman who lives in Seattle.

The woman, who asked she not be named out of fear for her safety, told Global News she was held for over six hours at Peace Arch Saturday afternoon after coming back from visiting family in Vancouver with her two young daughters.

She said U.S. border agents told her and dozens of other waiting Iranian-Americans and Iranian-Canadians that the long waits and extended interviews were part of a “new process.”

“When it was my turn, I had to answer questions about my citizenship, my parents, my siblings, where they lived and where they came from,” she said. “They had to fill out an online form … and they told me they had to send it out and they didn’t know how long it would take.”

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The woman said other children were waiting along with hers, some as young as three years old. She added the agents “were very polite and accommodating” for the children, and offered toys, juice boxes and snacks. But after several hours, she said emotions started to run high.

Click to play video: 'The geopolitical implications of Soleimani’s killing'
The geopolitical implications of Soleimani’s killing

“The moment they brought food, I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “I felt like a prisoner, and I just burst into tears. It was not a good situation for me, and everyone else was very frustrated.”

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The woman said she and others waiting with her felt racially and culturally profiled, and that she doesn’t want to cross the border again until the issue is resolved.

“I just want everyone to know what’s going on, and if we don’t talk about it then it might get worse,” she said.

Hoda Katebi, a Chicago-based community organizer who issued the press release, said she was in contact with Iranians who were detained for 11 hours before they were released, none of whom were told why they were being detained. Katebi added some were questioned about their citizenship status, what college they went to, where their parents lived and what courses they studied.

“It’s clear that Iranians are being racially profiled,” Katebi said. “In the context of all of the U.S. escalation and aggression against Iran, constantly probing and fighting against Iran both domestically and abroad, I think it’s very clear why this is happening.”

Masih Fouladi, executive director of CAIR Washington, said he found the reports “extremely troubling,” adding they “potentially constitute illegal detentions of United States citizens.”

“I’m an Iranian-American myself, I have dual citizenship, and it’s alarming and disturbing that if I went up to Canada for dinner and came back across the border I could be detained for 10, 11 hours,” Fouladi said in a later interview.

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Click to play video: 'Iran calls Trump ‘terrorist in a suit’ as Soleimani returns home'
Iran calls Trump ‘terrorist in a suit’ as Soleimani returns home

A spokesperson for the Canada Border Services agency said there is “no impact” to their operations, while Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office said the agency is “not involved in this matter.”

“All Canadian citizens, regardless of their background, are equal before and under the law, and no one will ever be arbitrarily detained at the Canadian border nor refused entry purely because of their ethnicity or religion,” Blair said in a statement.

Echoes of Muslim ban

Tahmina Watson, a Seattle-based immigration lawyer and chair of the local Washington state chapter of the Immigration Lawyers Association, said even in times of political strife, deterring American citizens and green card holders is illegal.

“They’re entitled to come back,” she said of Iranian-Americans who may have been held at the border.

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The detainment comes in the wake of escalating tensions between Iran and the U.S. just days after President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that killed the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and others as they travelled from Baghdad’s international airport early Friday morning.

Iran has since promised to exact its revenge on the U.S. for the targeted killing. On Sunday, Iranian officials announced the country would no longer abide by any of the limits of the already crumbling 2015 nuclear deal. The agreement blocked Tehran from having enough material to build an atomic weapon.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s parliament voted in favour of a resolution aimed at expelling the 5,000 U.S. troops stationed there over the war against the Islamic State group. The leader of one of Tehran’s proxies, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, said Soleimani’s killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members spread across the region fair targets for attacks.

In 2017, Trump signed the first of a series of executive orders — dubbed by critics as a Muslim ban — that established the right to refuse people from some predominantly Muslim majority countries to enter the U.S, including Iran. Now in its third version, Trump’s travel ban continues to separate thousands of families and loved ones.

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“If you remember the Muslim ban in its third iteration, it essentially excluded the ban from applying to U.S. citizens being cut off. Legally, it’s not allowed anyway and they had to fix that,” said Watson.

Elected officials are aware of the reports, and some have taken to social media to offer assistance to those affected.

“We are deeply concerned about reports we are receiving regarding U.S. citizens of Iranian descent and their families being held, sometimes for 10 hours or longer, at the Canada-Washington border for questioning,” Washington State Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib said in a statement to Global News.

“In the absence of any official statement on this as of yet, it is critical that Customs and Border Patrol immediately clarify this drastic change in policy.”

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Rep. Pramila Jayapal tweeted she was “deeply disturbed” by reports that Iranian Americans were being detained at the border, but was unable to confirm CAIR’s statement.

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