I was born and raised in Iran, and have been a naturalized U.S. citizen since 1997. For the past few years, I have visited my family in Iran annually. On Sunday, I returned to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after a two-week visit to Iran, landing around 12:30 p.m.
Upon seeing that my Global Entry form had been marked with an X , I followed posted instructions and went to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) desk. A friendly officer asked the usual questions (where I had traveled, etc.), and then escorted me to another office, claiming “my friend wants to talk to you.” At that office, I was asked to collect my bags and come to another inspection area.
Others in line with me for “secondary inspection” included an Iranian family (a mother and her two sons), a family returning from Lebanon and an American who lives in United Arab Emirates.
The CBP officer searched my checked and carry-on bags, and asked many routine questions, as well as some that seemed unusual to me: Whether anyone other than my wife lives with me, including Airbnb guests; whether I had served in the Iranian military; and how I had obtained a draft exemption from the Iranian military.
The officer informed me that CBP had the right to search my electronic devices. He asked for the password to my telephone, which I declined to give him. At that point he took my phone, along with my passport, to an area where I was not allowed to go.
Later, another CBP officer asked me about trips I had taken to Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela. Nearly all were business trips, related to my consulting work with mobile-phone companies. I was surprised to be asked about my travel to Bolivia, because that trip was much longer than five years ago, and the stamp is not in my current passport.
After I had been in CBP custody for more than 1 1/2 hours, I asked to use my laptop to email my wife, because I knew she would be worried. They would not allow me to do that but told me that my inspection should be over soon.
Around 3 p.m., after more than two hours in “secondary inspection,” I asked a supervisor whether I was being detained. I was told that as long as I was in customs inspection, I was detained. I asked whether there was a limit to how long they could hold me and was told up to 24 hours. I asked whether I had the right to notify my family. He said that they had notification timelines at two hours, three hours, etc. The supervisor fetched the officer who had taken possession of my phone, who offered to call my wife. I told him to tell her that I was detained for a review of my phone. Instead, once he got her on the phone, he asked whether she was expecting someone to arrive at Sea-Tac today and when she replied that she was, he told her, “that person is in our custody,” with no estimated release time and no reason given for my detention.
I was released from CBP custody almost three hours after my first contact with the agency.
Unlike the well-publicized, cruel mistreatment of migrants, including children, at our southern border — most of whom do not have the privilege of speaking out — I was treated with respect throughout my contact with CBP officers.
Nevertheless, my experience belies CBP’s claim, reported in The Seattle Times [“Iranian Americans say they were held,” Jan. 6, Northwest”], 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.”