CBP Denies Detaining Iranian-Americans 'Because Of Their Country Of Origin'

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has denied allegations that it saw dozens of Iranian-Americans and others of Iranian descent detained at the U.S. border "because of their country of origin" over the weekend.

The CBP denied the allegations in a Twitter post on Sunday, asserting that "social media posts that CBP is detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S. because of their country of origin are false."

The agency also maintained that neither the Department of Homeland Security nor CBP had issued any "directive" ordering border agents and officers to detain people of Iranian descent.

Despite the agency's assurances, the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-WA) said it had identified more than 60 Iranians and Iranian-Americans "of all ages" who said they had been "detained at length and questioned" by CBP officials.

All of those who were detained, CAIR-WA said, had been stopped at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Washington.

The organization said that those stopped reported having their passports taken away before being questioned about their political views and allegiances. Some, it said, were also "reportedly refused entry to the United States due to a lack of capacity" for CBP to detain them.

One 24-year-old U.S. citizen of Iranian descent told CAIR-WA of how they were detained and interrogated for more than 10 hours with their family at the border crossing before being released.

Identified only as Crystal, the 24-year-old, who is a medical student, said that "the vast majority of people being held last night were American citizens."

"We kept asking why we were being detained and asked questions that had nothing to do with our reason for traveling and was told 'I'm sorry this is just the wrong time for you guys'," Crystal said.

"These reports are extremely troubling and potentially constitute illegal detentions of United States citizens," said Masih Fouladi, executive director of CAIR-WA. "We are working to verify reports of a broad nationwide directive to detain Iranian-Americans at ports of entry so that we can provide community members with accurate travel guidance. We will continue to update the community and other civil rights organizations as we obtain more information."

In a series of tweets, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), also warned that it had heard "credible reports" of people of Iranian descent being stopped at U.S. border points.

"URGENT: we are hearing credible reports of detentions at U.S. borders, both of Iranian Americans and permanent residents," the NIAC, which identifies itself as a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing interests of the Iranian-American community, warned in a tweet on Sunday.

The organization said it was still "in the info-gathering stage," but said that reports had suggested that "many individuals of Iranian heritage have been detained for questioning at ports of entry—both at airports and border crossings."

Most reports, it said, however, had originated from the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Washington.

Washington officials said they were looking into the matter, with Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib issuing a statement expressing concern over reports of people of Iranian descent being held "sometimes for 10 hours or longer" at the Canada-Washington border.

My statement on reports of Iranian Americans being held at the WA-Canada border: pic.twitter.com/xDmZruiVDX

— Office of Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib (@waltgov) January 6, 2020

"My office is working as quickly as possible to gather information and to direct those being impacted to resources," Habib said.

Issuing his statement before CBP's own tweet denying the allegations, Habib said: "It is critical that Customs and Border Protection immediately clarify this drastic change in policy."

The controversy comes amid high tensions following the U.S.'s assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last week. Soleimani, who was 62, had overseen Iranian military operations in the Middle East and was marked in the U.S. as a terrorist responsible for the deaths of thousands.

U.S.-Canada border
Cars line up to enter the United States at the Peace Arch border crossing, between British Columbia and Washington State. Reports of dozens of people of Iranian descent, including many American citizens, being stopped at a U.S. border entry point have sparked alarm. Christopher Morris/Corbis/Getty

In the wake of Soleimani's killing, Iran vowed to take "severe revenge" before announcing that it would no longer be adhering to the restrictions on sensitive nuclear activity that it had previously agreed to under the 2015 nuclear deal.

President Donald Trump has warned that any retaliation from Iran could result in the U.S. striking back in a potentially "disproportionate manner."

"Such legal notice is not required, but is given nonetheless," the president said in a tweet.

Newsweek has contacted CBP, the NIAC, CAIR-WA and the office of Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib for comment for this article.