WASHINGTON — North American residents of Iranian descent and their advocates were sounding the racial-profiling alarm Monday after scores of them were subjected to intensive questioning and long delays while trying to cross the Canada-U.S. border over the weekend.
Len Saunders, an immigration lawyer whose practice in Blaine, Wash., specializes in cross-border issues, said several of his clients — some living in Canada, all of Persian descent — were made to wait for upwards of five hours and answer unusually intrusive questions Saturday before being allowed into the U.S.
They include an Iranian-born naturalized U.S. citizen and a Canadian resident who holds a green card in order to work south of the border, Saunders said in an interview.
″‘The room was full of Persians — people like me,’” Saunders quoted one of his clients as telling him. “I said, ‘What do you mean, people like me?’ She goes, ‘Iranians. We’re all talking and we’re all being asked the same questions.’”
At one point, she asked to be allowed to leave and return to Canada, where she had been visiting family members in Vancouver. She was told she was not allowed to leave the building, he said.
“She goes to me, ‘I’m an American. What was the point of me naturalizing and becoming an American? Do I have no rights here?’”
Posts on social media reported delays that lasted as long as eight to 10 hours.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat who represents a district in Washington state, said she believes the delays were fallout from last week’s seismic U.S. airstrike in Baghdad, which killed Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian military leader whose death triggered vows of retaliation, an outpouring of Middle East fury and renewed fears of deadly conflict involving U.S. troops.
Jayapal hosted a news conference in Seattle with Negah Hekmati, a Seattle-area interior designer and mother of two, who was held up at the border for five hours on Saturday on her way home from a family holiday in Canada.
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Hekmati, 38, a regular visitor to Canada who usually cruises past the border kiosk with the help of her Nexus card, described spending five hours at the Peace Arch crossing, her children fearing all the while that they might be taken to jail.
“My daughter was saying, ‘Please don’t speak Farsi. If you don’t speak Farsi maybe they won’t take you,’” Hekmati said. She said she decided to speak out for the sake of her kids, who she fears could face backlash at school if the U.S. goes to war with Iran.
“For me as an immigrant, I’m used to it, unfortunately, but for my kids it shouldn’t be OK and I’m afraid that’s the slippery slope,” she said. “My kids should be proud of their ancestors, their heritage.”
Hekmati, who has Iranian, Canadian and U.S. citizenship, lived in Canada for eight years before moving to the United States in order to enjoy what she thought would be even more freedoms in the American “melting pot.” She said she was asked to share her Facebook and email login details and pressed about uncles and cousins living in the U.S.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials at the Peace Arch attributed the long delays to staff shortages, Hekmati said — a claim she dismissed because employees did not appear to be overly busy. And she praised the patience and tolerance of others who were made to wait, noting that there was little complaining or outcry.
“This is not what it means to be a U.S. citizen,” Jayapal said. “You have to make it clear from the beginning that this is unacceptable. We have to stand up and say what we stand for as a country.”
WATCH: A brief history of U.S.-Iran relations. Story continues below.
Customs and Border Protection has denied detaining or refusing entry to any Iranian-Americans at the border as a result of their country of origin. It does, however, acknowledge operating under an “enhanced posture” as a result of the current threat environment.
Saunders, who visited the facility on Saturday afternoon and saw between 75 and 100 people waiting to be processed, said he doesn’t believe anyone was denied entry to the U.S. But Customs and Border Protection may be splitting hairs when it comes to what constitutes being detained, he suggested.
“I don’t think anyone was denied entry. But that there was not people being detained — when you’re held for eight to 10 hours and you’re told as an American citizen that you can’t leave the building — that’s detained, in my mind.”
Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, said in an interview Monday that U.S. border personnel operate under broad guidelines and have a lot of latitude when it comes to deciding who is allowed into the country.
“I think that given the circumstances over the last week I think that they’re probably operating at a heightened sense of concern right now relative to activities that might take place,” Heyman said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were additional interviews, additional time taken to understand the background of everyone who crosses the border at this moment.
“That’s just, unfortunately, the outcome of what has taken place in Iraq.”
Jayapal said she will be re-introducing an access-to-legal-counsel bill to better protect the rights of all American citizens to representation when they’re being held for hours without probable cause.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2020.
— With files from Mike Blanchfield in Ottawa and Camille Bains in Vancouver