The Mass Detention of Iranian-American Travelers Was As Unacceptable As It Was Predictable
By Masih Fouladi
Masih Fouladi is an Iranian-American lawyer who serves as Executive Director of CAIR Washington, the Washington chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He assisted some of the 150+ Iranian-Americans at the U.S.-Canadian border on January 4th and 5th, 2020.
“What do you think of the current tensions between the United States and Iran?” “What are the names and emails of all of your Iranian family members?” “What are all of your social media handles?”
These are just a few of the intrusive questions immigration officers with Customs and Border Patrol asked Iranian-Americans detained at the Peace Arch Border Crossing on the U.S.-Canadian border as they were returning home the weekend of January 4th and 5th.
When my phone rang late Saturday evening with calls for help from the border, I was neither shocked nor surprised.
As an American Muslim of Iranian descent, I too have been pulled aside at airports and interrogated about my faith and my politics more times than I care to count. And as a lawyer with our nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization, I know that my experiences are not unique.
Most American citizens traveling home from a trip abroad do not expect to be pulled aside for a secondary screening interview. The few who are pulled aside would never expect immigration officers to ask probing questions about — for example — their Christian faith, their European heritage, or who they voted for in the 2016 election.
But for Americans who look like me, pray like me, or trace their family’s lineage to Muslim-majority nations, international travel is an entirely different experience. Americans who are Muslim, have Arabic names, look like they are Middle Eastern, or have a Middle Eastern country listed as their place of birth, often expect to be pulled aside for secondary screening that can last for hours.
During these dreaded but common secondary screenings, immigration officers have asked us all-manner of irrational and even unconstitutional questions:
“What do you think about the situation in the Middle East?” “Are you Sunni or Shia?” “What mosque do you attend?” “What books do you read?”
This has been a recurring issue for the last two decades; hence my lack of surprise about what Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) did to Iranian-Americans in Blaine, Washington 10 days ago.
Still, everyone should feel outraged by the sheer scale and duration of it: CBP detained over 150 Americans of Iranian descent for as many as twelve hours, interrogated them about their Iranian background, and afterward had the audacity to publicly claim that their Iranian background was not the reason for the mass detentions.
“As an American Muslim of Iranian descent, I too have been pulled aside at airports and interrogated about my faith and my politics more times than I care to count.”
What, then, was the reason for detaining Crystal? Crystal is an American citizen whose parents immigrated to the United States from Iran. She was born in the United States and is a medical student. She was visiting her family in Washington for the holiday break when they decided to take an impromptu trip to Vancouver, B.C. for a change of scenery.
While they were away, Soleimani was killed. Crystal gave no thought to this development at the time because she couldn't imagine it would impact her or her family. She and her family were away from the United States for a total of three days. Upon her return, she was held in custody for eleven hours and saw three different shifts of officers come through. In addition to the questions mentioned above, she and her family and other Iranian-Americans were asked:
“Did you go to college in Iran?” “What courses did you take in college?” “Did you complete your mandatory military service in Iran?”
According to a vague statement posted by CBP on Twitter, none of this happened — and if it did happen, it had nothing to do with the fact that Crystal is a dual national of Iran. When Crystal asked why her family was being held, one CBP officer shrugged and replied, “It’s just a really bad time for you guys [Iranians] right now.”
Are we to believe that hours after President Trump nearly started a war with Iran immigration officers coincidentally detained Crystal and over 150 other Iranians? This was not coincidental — it was a predictable part of this administration’s white supremacist immigration policies and an even more predictable part of the way our nation goes to war.
Whenever our government wants to rally support for an attack in the Middle East, politicians follow a familiar pattern of whipping up fear and panic about supposed threats to the nation. This is why we’re hearing wild speculation about Iranian “sleeper cells” ready to wreak havoc on the homeland following the killing of Soleimani.
The narrative of an enemy within, lying in wait, is a classic way to spread fear while creating an environment in which the government can drop bombs overseas and target American citizens here at home.
What Customs and Border Patrol did to Iranian-Americans at the border in Blaine brought me to tears because it’s reminiscent of the first steps taken against Japanese-Americans 80 years ago. It’s the same targeted behavior immigration officers have used when “processing” American Muslims for twenty years and counting.
“One CBP officer shrugged and replied, ‘It’s just a really bad time for you guys [Iranians] right now.’”
When Crystal was finally home safe, she said, “America is my home; I’ve never been made to feel less American than I was [at the Peace Arch Border Crossing].”
As an American, as a Muslim, as a civil rights lawyer, and as a proud Iranian, I have had enough of seeing people mistreated while traveling simply because of where they or their parents were born.
If the CBP officers who detained dozens of Iranian-Americans over the weekend were rogue officers acting without approval from the federal government, they should be exposed and disciplined.
If they were acting with approval from the Trump Administration, whether direct or indirect, then both they and the officials who gave the order should be exposed and disciplined.
What happened last weekend was as unacceptable as it was predictable — and it must never happen again. The discriminatory targeting of other Middle Eastern and Muslim travelers at airports and borders must also stop.
No matter how intense the Trump Administration’s rapidly escalating war with Iran may become, Iranian-Americans are entitled to the same unalienable rights as every other American citizen.
We are not guests here. America is our home — and we expect to be treated accordingly.