SEATTLE – Iranian-American U.S. citizens claim they were held at the international border in Blaine, Washington for extra scrutiny Saturday night and into Sunday morning.
Immigrant rights activists believe their civil rights may have been violated. The allegations come just days after a U.S. military strike killed an Iranian military general in Iraq.
“Negah is a citizen herself, and everybody in her car was a citizen,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal during a Monday morning press conference at her Seattle office.
Negah Hekmati says she her husband and their two children were held at by border agents in Blaine hours Saturday night all because, according to her, of where she was born.
“As soon as they realized we were born in Iran, they led us to the office and held us there for five hours,” said Hekmati.
Hekmati says she, her husband and two kids are American citizens. After skiing and touring British Columbia, Hekmati says they were returning home to Kirkland but were held by border agents for hours when trying to re-enter the United States.
Hekmati claims agents asked probing questions about her social media accounts, extended family living in Iran and other questions all while she says her two kids became restless.
“They were very anxious," she said. "They were very scared that if they go to sleep they'd take us to jail, and they’d wake up and they get up and see that we’re not there."
“Clearly many people were being processed through and the only people that seemed to be held aside and detained in some form or fashion were people of Iranian heritage,” said Jayapal.
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said wait times at the crossing in Blaine averaged just two hours and up to four hours on Sunday, due to increased volume and reduced staffing during the holiday season.
The spokesperson insisted there was no directive to employ extra scrutiny for Iranian-Americans and that nobody was questioned because of their country of origin.
But the executive director of CAIR-Washington says he believes as many as 150 people of Iranian heritage were subject to excessive scrutiny.
“Many of these families were at the border crossing as early as 10 a.m. Saturday and most of them were not released until after midnight,” said Masih Fouladi.
“Their job is to protect their country,” Rep. Kim Schrier from Washington’s 8th Congressional District told Q13 News Monday. “If they had reason to worry, they had reason to worry.”
Schrier says she is waiting to learn more about the facts before making sweeping generalizations.
“I do know we are in a heightened threat against our country and that we need to be careful,” she said.
Representative Jayapal says she is working with the House Judiciary Committee to demand that the CBP explain exactly what happened this past weekend.
While the CBP says their agents don't discriminate based on race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, Jayapal worries the truth has yet to be revealed.
“The core factor of the matter remains is that this appears to be some sort of directives that even the border patrol agents talked about themselves just following orders,” she said. “So, there was some sort of order here, and we’re trying to get to the bottom of it.”