By Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Mike Baker and Mariel Padilla
Jan. 5, 2020
WASHINGTON — Dozens of Iranians and Iranian-Americans were held for hours at Washington State’s border with Canada over the weekend as the Department of Homeland Security ramped up security at border ports after Iran threatened to retaliate against the United States for the strike that killed its top military leader.
More than 60 of the travelers, many returning from work trips or vacations, were trying to come home to the United States on Saturday when agents at the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Wash., held them for additional questioning about their political views and allegiances, according to advocacy groups and accounts from travelers.
Most of the travelers were released after the extra scrutiny, according to administration officials, although advocates said some were denied entry into the United States.
Masih Fouladi, an executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, said some were held in a waiting room and questioned for up to 10 hours. Later on Saturday night, when others who had just attended a concert in Canada by an Iranian pop star were trying to cross back into the United States, they were denied entry and told to come back later, Mr. Fouladi said.
When one family asked agents why they were being questioned, an officer told them, “This is a bad time to be an Iranian,” according to Mr. Fouladi, whose group has spoken to the travelers.
“These reports are extremely troubling and potentially constitute illegal detentions of United States citizens.”
Matt Leas, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, disputed the accounts and reports from advocacy groups that the Department of Homeland Security had issued a directive to detain those with Iranian heritage entering the country, despite their citizenship status.
“Social media posts that C.B.P. is detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S. because of their country of origin are false,” Mr. Leas said. Officials from the agency added security at ports of entry across the country after the threat from Iran.
Processing time at the Blaine port of entry increased by four hours because of the high number of people entering and staffing shortages from the holiday season, according to the agency.
While border officers are not permitted to refer someone for what is known as a “secondary screening” of questioning based solely on national origin, it is one of multiple factors they are directed to consider, in addition to travel documents, travel history or suspicious behavior when choosing whom to refer for additional scrutiny. Such referrals for extra scrutiny happen daily. Gil Kerlikowske, a former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said agents would put an added emphasis on a traveler’s country of origin when that nation was singled out as a national security threat.
The Department of Homeland Security did just that on Saturday, when it updated its National Terrorism Advisory System to warn of Iran’s ability to retaliate against the United States through terrorism or cyberattacks or violence by homegrown extremists.
The bulletin system, which had not been updated since July, is intended to encourage law enforcement and the public to report suspicious activity.
“If you were an Iranian citizen returning from the British Columbia, you would be sent to secondary as a result of the increased tension with that country,” Mr. Kerlikowske said. “It wouldn’t be the main factor in many cases, but certainly in this particular instance the country of origin would be the determining factor.”
Customs and Border Protection did not answer subsequent questions about whether the travelers’ country of origin played any factor in the extra scrutiny at the Blaine port.
The larger-scale detention of Iranians and Iranian-Americans seemed limited to Blaine on Sunday. Advocacy groups said they had not heard of similar incidents at airports and other ports of entry. The travelers, some of whom asked that their full names not be published because of a fear of retaliation, said that after checking their documents, border officers would bring them inside the port to a room filled with other Iranians and Iranian-Americans.