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Border officials lied about targeted stops of Iranian Americans back in January

caption: Negah Hekmati, 38, speaks during a press conference detailing her 5-hour delay returning to the U.S. from Canada with her family, at Rep. Pramila Jayapal's office on Monday, January 6, 2020, in downtown Seattle.
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Negah Hekmati, 38, speaks during a press conference detailing her 5-hour delay returning to the U.S. from Canada with her family, at Rep. Pramila Jayapal's office on Monday, January 6, 2020, in downtown Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Last January, 277 people, many of them U.S. citizens or permanent residents with Iranian heritage or ties to the Middle East, were stopped by border agents, records obtained by the Council for American Islamic Relations in Washington and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project found.

The two groups sued for the documents.

At the beginning of 2020, social media reports warned that dozens of Iranian Americans were being stopped as they were entering the U.S. from Canada through the Blaine, Wash. port of entry.

At the time, Qasem Soleimani, a top level Iranian general, had just been killed by U.S. forces and tensions were rapidly escalating with Iran.

Masih Fouladi, then the executive director of CAIR-WA, said he started getting phone calls about people being detained late on Saturday night, Jan. 4.

Faced with allegations that border guards were detaining people because of their Iranian descent, U.S. Customs and Border Protection denied that agents were targeting people because of their country of origin. The agency also claimed that wait times rose to up to four hours at the Peace Arch in Blaine but that was due to reduced staffing around the holidays.

Recently obtained documents from the agency, however, tell a different story from behind the scenes. The documents provide a more detailed account and indicate a far greater number of people were detained at the border for extended periods of time than was previously reported by media.

In total, 277 individuals were referred to a secondary interview where they waited for several hours, many without their car keys or passports. About half of those people were U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The longest detention was 9 hours and 15 minutes, according to the internal documents.

While secondary inspection is a normal part of security protocols at the border, for CAIR-WA and NWIRP, this action went beyond that, as those stopped were not free to leave; and that while their country of origin can be a factor in the screening process, it can't be the only reason they're being stopped.

The agency did not clarify its actions when asked by KUOW this week, and would only state “As a matter of policy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not comment on pending litigation. However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.”

Emails after the killing of Qasem Soleimani

According to the documents, the Seattle Field Office shared the following with its staff in January: “In light of the US airstrike against Iranian IRGC-QF General Qassem Soleimani, it is prudent at this time to heighten our vigilance against any potential retaliation. All encounters with individuals from areas of national concern must be referred into secondary for additional layers of vetting."

The documents further clarify that Border Protection was ordered to stop people with links to Iran, Lebanon, and Palestine, and to track any connections like recent travel to those areas, an individual’s place of birth, citizenship, and any time served in the Iranian military.

One segment indicates that border agents are to assess threat indicators and document "where the subject is going, what the subject is doing or who they are going to meet."

An email among the documents dated January 3 also notes that "There is no specific intelligence at this time indicating any such threat here, but none the less, please increase your security awareness at our facilities to better safeguard our employees."

Shortly after reports of people being detained at the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection tweeted that the reports were false.

Held at the border

Negah Hekmati and her family were among those stopped at the border in Blaine around 11:30 that night in January. Hekmati and her husband are originally from Iran and are now naturalized citizens with two U.S. born children. They were sent to secondary inspection and asked about their background -- like where they went to school, the names of family members, and any social media accounts. They were finally released at 5 a.m.

While she’s relieved that the documents prove her experience, she’s frustrated and would like the agency to admit to its actions. She would like U.S. Customs and Border Protection to issue an apology to the people who were unlawfully detained.

“My kids, a couple months ago, they were asking me ‘What happened? What was the result of that?’ And I couldn't tell them, ‘See, people apologize for their behavior.’ There was nothing.”

Brianna Auffrey, the legal and policy manager with CAIR-WA said that, for her, this action was a strategic one from the current administration.

“I think that Trump's team saw it as an opportunity to look tough on national security, and didn't mind violating the rights of US citizens and legal permanent residents in the process, because he was pandering to his base.”

Auffrey added that it’s hard for the federal agency to deny or dismiss what happened.

“It was all very explicit. I don't think any of this happened by accident or by short staffing.”

Enoka Herat, a lawyer with the American Civil Right Union of Washington that focuses on policing and immigration policy, called the records "as close to a smoking gun as possible.” The ACLU of Washington is not involved in suing for these documents.

Herat also detailed how this action from the federal government is part of a larger pattern of heightened scrutiny on non-white Americans.

From the repatriation of an estimated 1 million Mexican-Americans in the 1930s to Executive Order 9066 which removed Japanese-Americans from their homes and forced them into detention centers, she said, “It just goes back to this: Even if you're a citizen, you're still foreign, you’re still suspect.”

For Hekmati and her family, the greatest pain is not just what happened back in January but that it’s part of a long pattern of Islamophobia and xenophobia for people like her -- and one that’s become normalized.

“The thing that bothers me is that we are getting used to it,” she said.

“This is the disaster -- that I don’t want my son or my daughter to experience it, to get numb to this behavior. Democracy is dead when people have an unfair thing happen to them and they are numb.”

Have a story or news tip to share? Reach out to reporter Esmy Jimenez at or @esmyjimenez

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