A federal investigation into recent detentions of Iranian-American travelers in Blaine is underway, after members of Congress and civil rights groups expressed concern about the “extreme vetting” that took place at the Peace Arch border crossing in the wake of a U.S. airstrike on an Iranian military figure.
On January 4 and 5, more than 60 travelers with Iranian backgrounds were held for hours at the Peace Arch border crossing and received extra questioning, following a U.S. airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani on January 3 in Baghdad, Iraq. Systematic enhanced screenings appear to have been limited to the Peace Arch border crossing, suggesting that the decision was made locally by CBP’s Seattle Field Office, which is based in Blaine, rather than at the national level.
At the time, a local immigration lawyer who visited the Peace Arch border crossing on an unrelated client matter asked a CBP officer what was going on. “Extreme vetting,” the officer replied, according to attorney Len Saunders’ account of the conversation. The CBP officer continued: “All of those Iranians, they are all being vetted and the only person making the final decision to let them in is the port director. Every single person is going to the port director. It’s taking us hours to process.”
Following widespread reports that more than 60 people of Iranian backgrounds, including NEXUS pass holders, were held in secondary inspection for up to 10 hours and asked questions about their political views, allegiances and ties to the Iranian military, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) requested that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties open an investigation into the detentions.
On January 8, the DHS civil rights office verbally confirmed opening an investigation and said it would be sending investigators to Washington state, said Subhan Cheema, a spokeperson for U.S. representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). While DHS wouldn’t elaborate on the scope of the investigation, “we believe the fact that they are investigating is a big deal, and the fact that they opened an investigation so quickly is also significant,” said Cheema.
Following the opening of the investigation, Jayapal said on Twitter that it was a “critical step toward getting to the truth – and getting real answers about what happened.” She also praised “the courage of those who spoke up to tell their story.” Her office said that individuals who were impacted by the extreme vetting can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A day earlier, Jayapal, who is vice chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, wrote a letter with five Democratic colleagues requesting further information and documents about the detentions of the Iranian-American travelers in Blaine.
“We write to express our alarm about U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reportedly holding large numbers of people of Iranian heritage in secondary inspection for up to 12 hours over the weekend of January 4-5, 2020, at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Washington,” said Jayapal’s January 7 letter, which was addressed to acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf, acting CBP commissioner Mark Morgan and Kenneth Williams, port director of the Blaine sector.
In a separate letter to acting CBP commissioner Morgan, congresswoman Suzan DelBene and 69 of her colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives also requested more information about the Blaine detentions.
“We are deeply concerned about the experiences of those impacted this past weekend and the potential that this may be the start of a new policy at our borders and airports illegally targeting those of Iranian descent based solely on their religion, ethnicity or national origin,” said DelBene’s letter.
DelBene’s letter continued: “Men, women and children legally entering or returning to the United States at a designated port of entry deserve better than to be arbitrarily held and questioned solely based on their religion, ethnicity or national origin.”
The NIAC reacted positively to the news of a federal investigation. “We are pleased that the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has opened an investigation into CBP’s potential discriminatory targeting of Iranian-Americans at the border following our formal complaint,” said NIAC president Jamal Abdi in a statement. “We will be working to ensure that the investigation is thorough, timely and results in the halt of this discriminatory treatment targeting our community.”
A CBP spokesperson declined to comment on the investigation. “We will provide comment once any investigation is complete,” said CBP press officer Jason Givens.