Apparent civil rights violations by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Blaine are deeply troubling and deserve Congressional scrutiny.
More than 60 people of Iranian descent, many U.S. citizens and lawful residents returning from short trips to British Columbia, were held, questioned and denied entry for up to 11 hours over the weekend of Jan. 4 and 5. This was right after the U.S. killed an Iranian general, increasing tension between the two nations, but there were no reports of the CBP abruptly and detaining so many such people at other border crossings.
This unconstitutional behavior is harmful to individuals, the regional economy and the nation, not to mention CBP’s integrity. It adds to the list of moral offenses by the current presidential administration toward immigrants that will take years to repair.
Members of Washington’s Congressional delegation, including U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Suzan DelBene, are rightly demanding a full explanation from the Department of Homeland Security. Results of the agency’s active civil rights investigation must also be made public.
Beyond the harm to individuals, this debacle hurts efforts by Washington state to increase business and education linkages between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. The state’s largest companies have offices in both cities, and both regions depend on trade, tourism and reasonable, predictable border crossings.
Washington state and the U.S. also benefit immensely from the contributions of Iranian immigrants. Their success is more powerful than missiles in the quest to counter anti-American propaganda and encourage democracy in Iran. Denying their rights weakens the U.S. position and gives ammunition to those attacking the promise of Western democracy.
Standouts include former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, now leading Uber, and Hadi Partovi, a former Microsoft manager who helped Facebook bring thousands of jobs to Seattle and founded the educational nonprofit Code.org.
The border must be protected, and visitors suspected of being a threat should be scrutinized. But the CBP cannot presume everyone of a particular ethnicity is a threat, especially not U.S. citizens — that crosses the line into racism and bullying. Nor can it unreasonably detain citizens and lawful residents, depriving them of liberty and their Constitutional rights.
A brief, evasive explanation provided by the Blaine office is unacceptable. It denied “detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S. because of their country of origin.” A spokesperson refused to answer further questions or reconcile its statement with firsthand accounts of witnesses and those detained for extra questioning and unable to enter their country for many hours.
There may have been a reasonable directive to heighten awareness of threats from Iran — acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf tweeted about “implementing measures to enhance homeland security” after the Iran killing. Heavy traffic volumes also increase border delays.
But those things do not justify indiscriminate, extended restraint of people based on ethnicity alone. Among those detained were Seattle area residents returning from a concert and ski trips. Some were previously screened to obtain Nexus passes for expedited border crossings.
That this surge of Iranian-American detentions happened only at a crossing in Washington adds to questions about local CBP leadership. A Canadian TV station recently exposed how the Seattle regional office is radically increasing the use of harsh, five-year bans on Canadians it suspects of trying to immigrate without proper documents.
The number of such bans increased 300 percent last year in the Seattle office, a far greater rate and volume than other regional offices along the northern border.
This occurred after management changed and the office relocated from Seattle to Blaine, according to Len Saunders, a Blaine immigration attorney. He witnessed the sudden mass restraint of Iranian-Americans and others of Middle Eastern descent, and also how it abruptly stopped after a public outcry and news reports.
The CBP must be transparent about what happened recently at Blaine, own up to any mistakes and explain how it will prevent such problems from occurring again. Its role securing borders and preventing terrorism is not a pass to evade questions about performance.
Correction: A previous version of this editorial incorrectly referred to the Border Patrol. The patrol is part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but the CBP’s Office of Field Operations provides security at ports of entry, not the patrol.