Seattle Field Office was “overzealous” in detaining Iranian-Americans, says top CBP official

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) acting commissioner Mark Morgan suggested that travelers with Iranian backgrounds were wrongly interrogated and detained while crossing the Peace Arch border during the January 4-5 weekend. Speaking at a February 11 news conference held in Washington, D.C. to discuss January enforcement numbers, Morgan responded to a question about a memo issued by CBP’s Seattle Field Office directing officers to employ enhanced interrogation to travelers with Iranian and other Middle Eastern backgrounds.

Morgan said, “I want to make clear – we do not target anyone based on their nationality, race, creed, color. That’s just a false narrative. ... In this specific incident, there was no national directive either from me or from anybody at headquarters to single out individuals that were connected to Iran. … In that specific office, a decision was made to take those individuals out of primary [inspection]. … That was not in line with our direction. That was immediately corrected and it was very unique to that one sector.”

Morgan then compared the matter with how CBP is currently dealing with the novel coronavirus, saying that there is additional questioning of travelers who are from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the global health emergency. “It was the same thing with the threat that was posed from Iran based on the totality of the circumstances,” he asserted. “I would say in that one instance, leadership just got a little overzealous and we corrected that right away.”

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who has been at the forefront of politicians criticizing CBP over the January 4-5 incidents, was not satisfied with Morgan’s explanation. On Twitter, she responded the same day by saying, “This is still not a sufficient response from CBP, and 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 at the #WA-Canada border.”

A lawsuit against CBP was filed on February 12 in the United States District Court in Seattle by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) challenging CBP’s refusal to produce a directive issued to CBP officers to detain and interrogate Iranian-Americans on January 4 and 5. CAIR had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on January 8 asking the agency to produce all directives or other communications issued by CBP regarding the screening of individuals of Iranian heritage.

The agency failed to respond within a 20-day period prescribed by law. The complaint filed by CAIR cited the publication of a “purported directive” by The Northern Light on January 29 and called on the court to order CBP to immediately produce all documents and records responsive to the plaintiff’s FOIA request.

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