More troubling details are emerging about last January’s border fiasco that improperly detained hundreds, including U.S. citizens, at Blaine.
Accountability is still needed for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s dismal performance and especially its deceptive and evasive public statements about what happened.
As President-elect Joe Biden installs new Homeland Security leadership and pursues immigration reform, he should ensure the organization’s culture evolves, it becomes more transparent and takes responsibility for mistakes.
Damning documents are trickling out because of a public-records lawsuit filed by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) tried to keep documents hidden, arguing they were exempt from disclosure because it could harm law-enforcement investigations or prosecutions.
But U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle rightly agreed with plaintiffs, citing their argument that the exemption “may not be used to withhold information regarding investigative techniques that are illegal or of questionable legality.”
This is another reminder of why exemptions to public-records laws must be few and narrow. Limited exemptions are necessary, but they cannot be exploited and used to hide wrongdoing.
On Oct. 5, Martinez ordered CBP and Homeland Security to produce documents for him to review and decide what’s appropriate to withhold or redact, and what must be disclosed.
That led to additional disclosures in December, including a regional directive calling for broad scrutiny of people with nebulous links to Iran, which triggered the January debacle. Still to come are more documents from CBP headquarters.
Border stations around the country were on alert after the U.S. killed a prominent Iranian general, Qasam Soleimani, on Jan. 3, prompting threats of reprisals.
But the Seattle regional office apparently went further than others, issuing a “high threat alert” telling officers to conduct vetting of anyone with “links” to Palestinians or Lebanese and Iranian and Lebanese nationals.
That resulted in nearly 300 people being detained, including 133 U.S. citizens and visa holders.
“There was no question they had the right to come into the country and yet they were being detained there for an interrogation based solely on their national origin,” said Matt Adams, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project legal director.
“The law requires that everyone receive equal protection under the law — you can’t arrest and detain people based on their national origin.”
Disclosed documents include emails describing how the regional office was overwhelmed, then backed off after word of the detainments emerged on social media and the press and Congressional offices started calling.
One email notes U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, personally called a regional office three times and had to leave messages because the calls weren’t answered.
The directive came Friday, Jan. 3. Detainments surged that Saturday. Sunday afternoon, new guidance was issued, saying there’s no need to refer U.S. citizens, visa holders or Canadian citizens “merely because they have a nexus to Iran.”
Yet CBP initially denied there was a directive. Its official response: “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.”
Its prepared response also said “wait times increased to an average of two hours on Saturday evening, although some travelers experienced wait times of up to four hours.”
Actually, according to CBP’s tally disclosed because of the lawsuit, 81% of the 277 people detained under the directive were held for more than two hours between noon Saturday and noon Sunday. That includes 32% detained longer than five hours, some up to 9 hours and 15 minutes.
Iranian-Americans may not have been refused entry, but they were absolutely detained, and for longer than CBP said when questioned about its unconscionable performance.
In other words, this was another part of the Trump administration propagating Fake News in a failed attempt to hide incompetence.
Protecting borders is an important, complex and stressful job. But it must be done in ways that build trust and uphold America’s values and Constitution.