The Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is opening an investigation into the many reports of people being stopped and questioned for hours last weekend at the Canadian border, according to a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
The civil-rights office confirmed the investigation Wednesday, and said it is sending investigators to Washington state, according to Subhan Cheema, Jayapal’s spokesman. The investigation comes as reports continue to surface, including from an Iranian American who said he was pulled aside at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for a prolonged “secondary inspection.”
The vast majority of stops appear to have occurred at the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine and affected people of Iranian descent, although two others of different Middle Eastern heritage also told The Seattle Times they went through a similar ordeal. Most if not all appeared to be American citizens or lawful permanent residents.
Jayapal’s office has estimated that between 60 and 200 people were subject to the stops, which lasted up to 12 hours.
“This is a critical step toward getting to the truth — and getting real answers about what happened,” Jayapal said in a statement, referring to the investigation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesman Jason Givens said the agency would comment when the investigation is complete.
Jayapal, other members of Congress and community leaders have called into question the legality of the stops, which they linked to heightened tension with Iran after the killing last week of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, ordered by President Donald Trump. CBP officials are allowed to take national origin into account when deciding whether to question someone, but it should not be the only factor, said Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
CBP has denied it was detaining Iranian Americans or issued any directive to do so “because of their country of origin,” as the agency put it in an email to some Congress members Monday.
The email, from a CBP congressional liaison, noted there was a teleconference last Friday between leaders in the field and CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan and Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez, “where the field was asked to remain vigilant and increase their situational awareness given the evolving threat environment.”
Leaders in the field have “discretion on how to enhance operational posture,” the email also said, which added that CBP brass quickly contacted Blaine officials after hearing the reports to make sure “screening determinations are based upon a totality of circumstances.”
To some who had been held, CBP’s denial added insult to injury. That’s why Aram Falsafi said he decided to speak out after being pulled aside at the airport Sunday.
Falsafi, a 54-year-old telecommunications engineer and American citizen, said he was returning from a two-week trip to visit family in Iran. He is part of the Global Entry program that allows for expedited clearance, but received a form with an “X” on it directing him to a CBP officer. He said he was asked about his employment, his travels abroad, who lived with him and whether he served in the Iranian military. He said a CBP officer also took his phone away, a controversial practice that is the subject of litigation.
After waiting more than two hours, he said he asked if he was detained. He said he was told he was as long as he was undergoing inspection. When Falsafi asked if he could contact his wife, who was waiting for him at their Seattle home, he said an officer called her for him and said Falsafi was in CBP “custody.”
He said he was allowed to leave soon after the officer talked to his wife, a professor.
Jayapal’s office says people with such experiences can email the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at firstname.lastname@example.org.