Immigrant rights groups, lawmakers increase pressure on CBP over enhanced Iranian-American screening at Canada border

SEATTLE – The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan finally addressed the backlash in connection to dozens of Iranian-Americans' claims of intense scrutiny along the Canadian Border.

Last month, CBP officers in Blaine performed lengthy screenings on Iranian-Americans following a drone-strike in Iraq that killed an Iranian military official.

The statement comes weeks after immigration activists cried foul, saying hundreds of Iranian-Americans traveling back into the United States from Canada were unreasonably held for hours.

Wednesday, a federal lawsuit was filed by CAIR-Washington against CBP claiming the agency has ignored legal requests for documents.

“Most of the people who were impacted by this are now U.S. citizens and permanent residents,” said Northwest Immigrant Rights Project executive director Jorge Baron.

Baron said his organization, which is representing CAIR-Washington, alleges CBP has ignored calls to share documentation to explain why up to 200 Iranian-Americans were detained at the Canadian border.

“There was a clear change in how they were conducting their screening in Blaine that was leading to people from Iran being detained for extend periods,” he said.

Negah Hekmati, a U.S. citizen now living in Western Washington, was in Canada skiing last month. When she and her family tried to return to Puget Sound she says border patrol agents delayed them and she believes that’s because she was born in Iran.

“As soon as they realized we were born in Iran, they held us there for five hours,” she said.

Immigrant rights groups say dozens more were held up for extended questioning. At first, CBP blamed short staffing and holiday hours for the delays.

“We do not target anyone based on their nationality, that’s a false narrative,” said CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan. “Hands down, we do not do that.”

Morgan held a press conference Tuesday where he said there were no directives set to target Iranian-Americans crossing the border.

“Leadership got a little bit overzealous and we corrected that right away,” he said.

But after another immigration attorney in Washington state released what is claimed to be an internal CBP document instructing officers to intensify scrutiny of Iranian-Americans, Baron believes the agency still isn’t being transparent.

“So, which one is it?” he asked. “Were they doing something wrong or not?”

Not only are immigration attorneys and lawmakers pressing CBP to release documents detailing exact instructions for officers in Blaine, some also are concerned that what happened last month violated Iranian-American’s civil rights.

“I think if agencies engage in this kind of activity, that actually makes us all less safe,” said Baron.

It was an experience Hekmati worries her children will remember forever.

“They were very anxious, they were very scared, that if they go to sleep, they make take us to jail and wake up and see we’re not there,” said Hekmati.

Washington state’s U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal proposed new legislation in Washington D.C called the ‘Access to Council Act’ that if approved would guarantee American citizens access to lawyers if they’re detained by CBP re-entering the U.S.

The lawmaker responded to Q13 News’ request for comment with the statement below:

“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 Washington State-Canada border.

This is still not a sufficient response from CBP. The leaked memo contains information and procedures apparently sent to field offices from CBP headquarters that clearly targets people solely based on country of birth. We have heard reports of at least one other field office that acted on similar procedures, in addition to the Blaine, WA point of entry. I continue to await a formal response from CBP headquarters to the letter I led with House Judiciary, Oversight and Homeland Security colleagues. We need to know how far-reaching the order was, who it came from and why it took so long for CBP to come clean.d

I also ask that the investigations underway be undertaken with all due speed. These violations of rights and targeting of individuals—including U.S. citizens and those with valid visas—are egregious breaches of protocol and violations of civil liberties. Without understanding what happened, we simply cannot ensure it never happens again. I am committed to pursuing this until we get the answers we deserve.”