A 38-year-old Iranian mother, who says she was held at the U.S.-Canadian border for hours on Monday, is describing the incident as “unfortunate.”
Negah Hekmati, her husband and two children were allegedly held at the Peace Arch border crossing in Washington on Sunday. Hekmati told reporters that her and her husband hold Iranian, American and Canadian citizenships, but currently live in the U.S.
“We were anxious, of course,” Hekmati said at the press conference hosted by Democrat Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal.
She added that the incident left her children, aged five and eight, “very frightened.”
“My daughter was telling me, please don’t speak Farsi, if you don’t speak Farsi maybe they won’t take you.”
Muslim civil rights organization the Council on American-Islamic Relations, also known as CAIR, alleged in a press release Sunday that more than 60 Iranian-Americans were held for hours at the crossing. Many were returning following an Iranian pop concert featuring Masih and Arash Ap that was held Saturday night in Vancouver.
Hekmati noted the border patrol officers said they were following “orders,” but did not specify exactly why the family and others were being held..
U.S. Customs and Border Protection denied the 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,” CBP said on Twitter, adding that at most, Iranians looking to cross the border waited no longer than four hours.
Hekmati, who is an interior designer, said she and her family had not attended the concert, but were returning home from a ski trip and had visited family in Canada.
“We went there for skiing, our ski rack were full of skis,” she said, adding that the family frequently visits Canada and has Nexus cards.
During the approximately five-hour-long wait, Hekmati said they were asked by U.S. border patrol officers to fill out paperwork. Her husband was also asked several questions about his two-year mandatory military service in Iran, during which he served in the police department.
Though CBP denied there was any order, several people disputed the CBP’s stance.
Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said he went to the border crossing at Blaine on Sunday in response to the reports. He tweeted that he spoke with one legal permanent resident of the U.S. who was detained for 11 hours overnight in “secondary screening” along with about 40 other people who had been born in Iran.
“Bottom-line: despite CBP denials, this was definitely happening,” Baron wrote.
An Iranian-American woman who lives in Seattle, who asked she not be named out of fear for her safety, spoke to Global News saying 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.
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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.”
At Monday’s press conference, Jayapal also said it is “difficult to believe” the CBP’s denial after listening to stories of those who say they were held for hours.
“People were not just held for simple secondary questioning for an hour or even 15 minutes,” she said, citing several accounts. “It was very lengthy screening with no ability to leave.”
The congresswoman noted there are currently no plans to press charges over detentions, but she wants answers on why Iranian-Americans were held.
“This appears to be another attempt to target and isolate a community that very much is part of our fabric, our social social fabric,” Jayapal said.
— With files from Global News reporter Sean Boynton, Emerald Bensadoun and The Associated Press