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‘Extreme vetting’ of Iranians crossing Canada-U.S. border was local directive: CBP whistleblower

Iranian-born U.S. citizen allegedly detained at border for at least five hours says she felt ‘anxious’
WATCH: Negah Hekmati, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen who was returning home to the Seattle area after a ski weekend in Canada, was allegedly held at the U.S. border and questioned with her family by Customs and Border Patrol for at least five hours.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer says the “extreme vetting” of dozens of people with Iranian backgrounds attempting to cross the border into Washington state earlier this month was a local initiative directed by the officer’s managers in Blaine, Wash.

The whistleblower came forward to Blaine immigration lawyer Len Saunders, who has revealed the allegations while protecting the officer’s identity over fears of retribution.

Speaking to both Global News and CKNW Thursday, Saunders said he received a “lengthy email” detailing what officers throughout the Blaine sector were told by their local managers overseeing the ports of entry.

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“Basically [the direction was] there was to be a roundup or detention of any individual entering the United States through Peace Arch if they were born in Iran,” he said.

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

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says more than 60 Iranians and Iranian-Americans were detained at length at the Peace Arch Border between Jan. 3 and 5.

Many of those held were coming back to the U.S. from an Iranian pop concert in Vancouver that weekend.

U.S./Iran dispute hits U.S./Canada border
U.S./Iran dispute hits U.S./Canada border

Some told Global News they spent up to eight hours at the crossing, while others have described waits as long as 12 hours. All said they were subjected to lengthy interviews from border agents after it was discovered they had been born in Iran, despite having U.S. or Canadian citizenship.

Saunders says the operation was only suspended around 1 p.m. on Jan. 5 after the detentions began receiving media coverage on both sides of the border.

“When the initiative went out to suspend the operation, the offers were told not to go to the media, not to speak to the media, and especially not admit that the operation had been occurring,” he said.

“I think this officer saw what was happening and realized it was probably illegal what the Americans were doing to these Iranian-born applicants for admission.”

READ MORE: ‘We were anxious’: Iranian family says they were held at U.S.-Canada border for hours

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Saunders said the officer’s account matched what the lawyer saw when he visited the Peace Arch point of entry on Jan. 5 and met with several Iranian people still being held.

While initial reports said the detentions were only taking place at the Peace Arch crossing, Saunders said he’s heard from other border officers that the directive also covered the rest of the ports of entry in the Blaine sector, including Bellingham and Sumas, Wash.

“I’ve never seen the Americans target a specific group of travellers,” he said. “It’s no different than if they were to limit every African-American from entering the United States.

“The officer said to me, ‘were these stops constitutional?’ And he said, ‘probably not.’ He thinks these stops were unlawful, and I agree with him.”

Iranians held up at U.S.-Canadian border: reports
Iranians held up at U.S.-Canadian border: reports

Detained travellers told Global News that officers at Peace Arch explained the long waits and extended interviews as part of a “new process,” prompting questions of whether a national directive was issued by CBP or the Department of Homeland Security.

The CBP at the time denied such an order was issued based on travellers’ country of origin, but said ports were “operating with an enhanced security posture” due to tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The detentions began taking place less than 24 hours after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike that killed the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

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The CBP referred to those earlier statements when reached for comment on the whistleblower’s allegations Thursday.

READ MORE: ‘We are tourists, not terrorists’: Iranian-Canadian speaks out after detention at U.S. border

The stories of “extreme vetting” received swift condemnation from local politicians, including members of Congress and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who said CBP’s denials were ‘simply not credible” after so many travellers came forward.

Democrat Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Washington state senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have led requests for additional information on the detentions from the Trump administration, including CBP and the Department of Homeland Security.

While Saunders is hopeful that information will be brought to light in the wake of the whistleblower’s allegations, he said he doesn’t have much faith.

‘We continue to have a very skewed notion of what it means to be an American citizen’: Congresswoman Jayapal
‘We continue to have a very skewed notion of what it means to be an American citizen’: Congresswoman Jayapal

“I don’t think U.S. politicians realize the significance of what happened,” he said.

“They’ve been assured by CBP that this didn’t happen, so they’ve obviously taken them at face value. But it’s harder now for them to deny what happened and to not take some kind of action so it never happens again.

“There needs to be accountability. Someone needs to be accountable for putting the frontline officers in this position. It was a complete waste of time.”

Saunders wouldn’t rule out a possible class-action lawsuit against the Blaine CBP sector, adding many of his own clients are afraid to come forward with their own stories and identify themselves.

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But he said he will continue to seek justice for those people who were held and questioned for hours, many with children in tow.

“I hope I never see anything like this in my career ever again,” he said.