U.S. border agents detained hundreds more people of Iranian descent at the Washington-British Columbia border in early January than previously reported, according to newly released documents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The documents, including internal emails, were released Tuesday by a federal judge in Washington state after a freedom of information act request by the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. The latter group is legally representing many of the people detained for hours at the border for “extreme” or “secondary” vetting.
The emails reveal that 277 people of Iranian heritage were referred for secondary vetting in the 24 hours between Jan. 3 and Jan. 4 at the Peace Arch Border Crossing between Surrey, B.C., and Blaine, Wash. — far more than the 60 originally estimated by the Council on American Islamic Relations.
The documents also show that the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) himself helped approve public statements about the detentions after reports began getting picked up by advocates and news outlets.
Some of the detainees told reporters in January that they were singled out by border agents for their Iranian heritage as they attempted to enter the U.S. from Canada, many of them returning from an Iranian pop concert in Vancouver. Some of them were held overnight with their children, describing wait times between eight and 12 hours.
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.
At the time, the CBP said Soleimani’s killing had triggered an escalation in the U.S. threat level over fears of retribution, but denied it had led to any directive that people crossing the border be detained based on their heritage or country of origin.
Yet the newly released documents also include a timeline of events from that January weekend prepared by the CBP’s Seattle field office, which mentions guidance from the office that “all encounters with individuals from areas of national concern must be referred into secondary for additional layers of vetting.”
A leaked memo from the Seattle field office obtained by Global News in January showed local officials did indeed direct agents to vet anyone with connections to Iran and other Middle Eastern countries in the wake of Soleimani’s killing.
Emails included in the new documents show field offices and border agents were instructed by top CBP officials to report daily on any incidents of Iranians being denied entry to the U.S. That guidance did not include any instructions to refer those people for additional vetting.
In February, acting CBP commissioner Mark Morgan acknowledged to reporters that agents in Blaine behaved in a way “that was not in line with our direction.”
“I would say in that one instance leadership got a little overzealous, and we corrected that right away,” he said.
Yet the emails also show that Morgan helped craft the statement to the media that denied Iranian-Americans were being detained because of their country of origin.
Morgan also added a line to the statement that denied CBP ever issued such a directive, despite the Seattle field office memo referred to numerous times in other emails and documents.
“Not only were the CBP’s actions illegal, but they explicitly colluded to cover it up and keep their actions from the American people,” said Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, in a statement.
“It is our duty as civil rights activists to ensure that CBP is held accountable for these flagrant violations to ensure our communities are protected.”
Matt Adams, the legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, called the CBP’s actions in Blaine unconstitutional.
“We urge Congress and the incoming Biden administration to hold CBP officials accountable for violating the civil rights of Iranian-Americans, among others,” he said.
A CBP spokesperson declined to comment on the documents and what they reveal, due to pending litigation. However, the spokesperson said a lack of comment “should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.”
The 277 detainees included 85 Iranian-Americans and 48 permanent residents of Iranian heritage, according to an email sent to CBP deputy commissioner Robert Perez. The vast majority were held for over two hours, with nearly one-third not being allowed to leave for over five hours, the email reads.
A separate email to Perez says 41 people were held for longer than six hours. Seventeen spent eight to nine hours in detention for vetting, while two were held for longer than nine hours.
Some of the detainees were also Canadian citizens, according to North Vancouver resident Sam Sadr, who told Global News in January that he and his family were held for more than eight hours.
“They questioned me, sometimes my dad, sometimes my family,” he said. “Have you been in the military? Does your family belong to terrorism? Politics?”
Eventually, border agents let the family into the U.S., but they returned back to Canada upset about the questioning after about an hour.
“We are tourists, not terrorists,” said Sadr, noting that he grew up and did all of his schooling in Japan.
“I was just born in Iran, that’s it. Did I work for the government? Did I do terrorist things? No. Why us? Why innocents?”
Another woman, who did not give her name out of fears for her safety, told Global News she and her two young children were held for over six hours, which got tense near the end.
“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.”
The detentions have been the subject of investigations in the U.S. Congress, with lawmakers calling for CBP and the Department of Homeland Security to come clean about the directive and formally apologize to those who were detained.
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state has sent several letters to those agencies demanding answers, and has brought forward witnesses who have described their ordeals in detention.
Jayapal has said she met with the CBP’s Seattle field office director Adele Fasano in February, where Jayapal said Fasano admitted to the local directive.
— With files from Global News’ Srushti Gangdev and Simon Little