Civil rights groups, public officials, and lawmakers have made inquiries over reports that dozens of Iranians and Iranian-Americans were held up and questioned for hours over the past weekend as they returned to the United States from Canada.
The Washington state branch of the nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations said more than 60 Iranians and Iranian-American of all ages were detained for up to 10 hours or more, questioned about their political views, and had their personal belongings confiscated like passports, car keys, and smart phones at Washington state’s border with Canada.
Many were returning from a concert across the border, while others were visiting family members over the holidays, and some had gone skiing or were on business trips.
Another advocacy group, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) has stated it is monitoring the situation and has filed a formal complaint with the Department of Homeland security about the incidents.
The reports come amid tensions between the United States and Iran following the high-profile killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani last week by a U.S. airstrike.
Speaking at a news conference at the Seattle office U.S. House of Representative Pramila Jayapal (Democrat-Washington) on January 6, 38-year-old Negah Hekmati said she and her husband were detained along with their 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter for five hours starting at midnight on January 5.
They are all U.S. citizens and are part of the NEXUS program, which provides expedited border-crossing services for low-risk travelers.
Officials at the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) denied discriminating against travelers based on religion, race, or ethnicity.
“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,” CBP spokesman Michael Friel told AFP.
However, “based on the current threat environment, CBP is operating with an enhanced posture” at its border crossing to safeguard national security and protect the American people “while simultaneously protecting the civil rights and liberties of everyone,” he said.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is monitoring the reports of increased screenings.
"The common thread here is that a large number of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents were subject to very disturbing treatment based apparently on their Iranian heritage,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s national security project, told NBC News.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee (Democrat) has asked federal government officials for additional information and has sought first-hand accounts from people who have experienced problems, according to his January 5 tweet.
Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, told AP he went to the border crossing on January 5 to see for himself what was happening.
He met one legal U.S. permanent resident who was detained for 11 hours overnight along with 40 other people who had been born in Iran.
“Bottom-line: despite CBP denials, this was definitely happening,” Baron wrote on social media.