Dozens of Iranian Americans Report Being Detained and Harassed at U.S. Border

Dozens of Iranian Americans crossing into the U.S. are reporting that they have been detained, questioned and harassed by Customs and Border Protection agents. The reports come amid escalating tensions between Washington D.C. and Tehran following the assassination of General Qassim Suleimani via a drone strike order by President Trump.

An estimated 200 people were reportedly held by border agents, questioned and asked to share their opinions on Iran and the situation in the Middle East. More than 100 people of Iranian descent reported being delayed at Washington’s border, The New York Times reported.

Governor Jay Inslee called the detentions irrational and questioned whether they were constitutional. “I don’t think there’s any reason that is rational — and certainly constitutional — to target people based on the place of their birth,” Inslee told the Times. “It’s pretty clear that that’s what they did here.”

However, Customs and Border Protection officials denied that agents were detaining Iranian Americans or refusing them entry into the country.

“Social media posts that CBP is detaining Iranian Americans and refusing their entry in the U.S. because of their country of origin are false,” CBP spokesperson Michael Friel said in a statement to The North Star. “Reports that [the Department of Homeland Security]/CBP has issued a related directive are also false.”

However, the reports were not just made on social media. During a news conference in Seattle on January 6, legal advocates reported cases of travelers being questioned about their feelings toward the U.S. and the situation in Iran and Iraq. The Times reported that travelers of Iranian descent described being interrogated about their families and background, despite many being American citizens.

Negah Hekmati, who was traveling from Canada with her family, said they were detained for hours and questioned about their relatives back in Iran and any possible military service. Hekmati said her children couldn’t sleep while they were detained and her daughter worried they would be jailed.

“My kids shouldn’t experience such things,” Hekmati said, according to the Times. “They are U.S. citizens. This is not O.K.”

“United States citizens and legal permanent residents do not have to answer questions about their political views or religious views and practices, and cannot be denied entry into the United States for declining to answer these questions,”

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Security Project, said. The ACLU did not respond to The North Star’s request for additional comment.

The detentions prompted the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) to request that DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties launch an investigation. On January 7, the NIAC announced that the civil rights office agreed to open an investigation.

“Detaining individuals on the basis of their national origin is illegal, and the Iranian American community will not stand for such outrageous and discriminatory treatment,” NIAC president Jamal Abdi said in a statement.

Abdi continued: “Unfortunately, we continue to see discriminatory targeting of the Iranian American community from this administration, which began on Week 1 when it instituted a Muslim ban and spread fear and chaos across the country. Three years later, we are still battling to safeguard our community’s rights and won’t stop until everybody in our community and country is safe from discrimination on the basis of they national heritage.”

Tensions Rise Between Iran and America

Tensions between Iran and America have escalated since the Trump administration ordered the drone strike assassination of the head of Iran’s elite Quds military force. General Qassim Suleimani was killed on January 3 while he was near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.

In response, Iran has threatened to retaliate against the United States and its supporters. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CBS News that Iran’s response would be “proportionate” and “against legitimate targets.” Iran also announced that it would no longer abide by terms agreed upon in the 2015 nuclear deal. The Trump administration pulled out of the deal in 2018, leaving behind its European allies.

President Donald Trump claimed that the drone strike was carried out to prevent war, but later claimed on Twitter that the U.S. would target 52 Iranian sites, including cultural sites, if Iran retaliates. Attacking cultural sites would go against international laws set by the World Court in The Hague. Defense Secretary Mark Esper later walked back Trump’s tweets by saying the U.S. would not be leading military attacks on Iranian cultural sites, The New York Times reported.

On January 7, Trump said the U.S. would not attach Iranian cultural sites because "I like to obey the law," USA Today reported. Hours later Iran fired more than a dozen missiles on two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces. Iran claimed the attack, which state media called "Martyr Soleimani," was part of Tehran's revenge for Suleimani's killing, according to NBC News.

"We are aware of the reports of attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq. The President has been briefed and is monitoring the situation closely and consulting with his national security team," White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said.

Ryan Costello, the policy director at NIAC, told The North Star that he believes Iranian Americans will now be more cautious when they travel given the reports and timing of the reported detainments.

“I do believe this is something that the Iranian-American community is going to factor into their calculations regarding travel, as it is profoundly shocking for citizens to be treated this way and discriminated against because of their national heritage,” Costello said. “It is also important to note that - for now - these appear to be incidents that are relatively time-bound. The detainments that we know of happened over the weekend, immediately following the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani [another spelling for Qassim Suleimani].”

“Know Your Rights” Advisory and other Resources

In response to the detentions, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and released a “Know Your Rights” advisory for Iranian Americans and others affected by the US-Iran crisis. CAIR said its Washington state chapter is assisting Iranian Americans who were detained and questioned by border patrol.

“Policy-makers and opinion leaders should exercise caution at this tense and critical moment. We must not allow fear-mongering war rhetoric to endanger our fellow Americans, whatever their faith or heritage,” CAIR Senior Litigation Attorney Gadeir Abbas said in a statement. Abbas said that anyone experiencing harassment, delays or questioning should contact the organization for legal assistance.

CAIR’s “Know Your Rights” advisory noted that all individuals, regardless of citizenship, have a legal right to have a lawyer present when speaking with federal law enforcement agencies. Individuals also have a legal right to refuse to answer questions and it cannot be held against them.

Costello told The North Star that U.S. citizens, regardless of their ancestry or religion, have every right to enter the country. He encouraged citizens and permanent residents to answer questions but said they can refuse to answer questions about their religion or politics. Costello warned that Iranians with visas could be denied entry into the country if border agents determine they are not entering the country for the purpose of the visa or if they refuse to answer questions.

People who have experienced travel delays, detainment, questioning or any other form of harassment while crossing the border can reach out to several organizations for legal help. The ACLU of Washington can be reached by a variety of ways here. CAIR can be reached here. NIAC released a “Know Your Rights” document with contact information here.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.