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U.S. Customs Chief Admits Agents Mistreated Iranian Americans At U.S.-Canada Border

American-Iranian Negah Hekmati, left, looks on as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., addresses a news conference about Hekmati's ordeal during an hours-long delay returning to the U.S. from Cana. Seattle. January 6, 2020

The acting head of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency acknowledged that agents were out of line last month when they detained dozens of Iranian-Americans and Iranians at a border crossing near Canada in Washington State.

While providing January border-crossing statistics in Washington on February 11, Mark Morgan, the agency’s acting commissioner, said agents behaved in a way “that was not in line with our direction,” when they held more than 60 U.S. citizens of Iranian heritage for up to 10 hours or more for questioning.

It was a rare admission of misconduct from the agency and the first public recognition of the incidents.

Accounts from travelers and advocacy groups reported dozens of people being held over the January 4-5 weekend at an entry point in Blaine, Washington.

Their detentions took place after a U.S. drone attack killed Qasem Soleimani, a high-ranking Iranian commander, in Iraq on January 3.

Some travelers were questioned for hours about their political views, and had their personal belongings like passports, car keys, and smart phones, confiscated.

Morgan admitted officials at the particular Washington entry point were disorderly.

“I would say in that one instance leadership got a little overzealous, and we corrected that right away,” he said.

The detentions prompted lawmakers and local officials to investigate the matter on their own after CBP officials repeatedly denied that Iranian-Americans had been singled out as they returned to the United States.

Amid a leaked memo that later emerged directing CBP agents to stop travelers of Iranian descent for questioning, Representative Pramila Jayapal (Democrat-Washington) made inquiries and gave news conferences on the incident.

“It’s deeply disturbing that it took my inquiries, a leaked memo, and press reports for CBP to finally acknowledge that it inappropriately targeted Iranian Americans,” Jayapal said in a statement.

Still, she wasn’t satisfied with Morgan’s admission, saying his statement was “not a sufficient response.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi has condemned the CBP for its “illegal” and “inhumane” treatment of Iranian nationals as a brazen violation of human rights.

In a statement, Musavi said a complaint could be lodged against such conduct in human rights courts.

“Such behavior from the U.S. government could be definitely brought to and sued by the human rights tribunals,” the spokesman said.

With reporting by dpa, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, and Tehran Times