At a news conference held Monday by U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, an Iranian-born woman said she, her husband and their two young children — all American citizens — were held and questioned at the Canadian border for five hours over the weekend before they were allowed to reenter the United States.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers held the family’s passports and car keys during that time, which lasted from about midnight to 5 a.m. Sunday, said Negah Hekmati, an interior designer who lives with her family in Kirkland. Her husband is a software engineer for Microsoft.
“My kids were so anxious,” Hekmati said of her son, 8, and daughter, 5. They didn’t want to sleep because they were worried their parents might be taken to jail.
The account mirrored many others from people stopped at the border, including five additional people interviewed by The Seattle Times. Three were of Iranian heritage, one of Palestinian and one of Lebanese. All were either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
Adam Ballout, whose family emigrated from Lebanon when he was a baby, said he was told by an officer that that he and his coworkers had been told to stop and question everyone of Middle Eastern descent.
Such accounts led Jayapal and community leaders appearing with her Monday to cast doubt on CBP’s Sunday denial that it had been detaining people at the border or that there was a federal directive to do so amid talk of a possible war with Iran following the U.S. killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
CBP spokesman Jason Givens said the agency stands by its Sunday statement, which attributed delays to “increased volume and reduced staff during the holiday season.” The statement added that “CBP does not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.”
Yet national origin is one factor border officers are allowed to consider, former CBP Commissioner and Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske told The New York Times.
People who spent hours waiting in the Blaine station said they saw people not of Iranian descent pass through the Blaine station quickly, while they were treated very differently.
They may not have been held in a locked room, but “these families were not free to leave,” said Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He called their treatment illegal, saying that national origin can be a factor but not the only factor.
Barón traveled to the Blaine CBP station Sunday afternoon, where he said he saw 40 to 50 people in the waiting room and met three families who had been questioned. He talked to one woman from Bellevue who said she was held for about 11 hours.
Barón, an attorney, said he asked to be present while CBP officials questioned people but was turned down.
Jayapal, whose office estimates that as many as 200 people were questioned for prolonged periods at the Blaine crossing, said she made a point of holding the news conference quickly after hearing what happened.
“You have to make it clear from the beginning that this is unacceptable,” she said. The congresswoman said she is reintroducing a bill that would allow people to have attorneys present during questioning by border officials.
She also said she is working urgently with other members of Congress to try to pass bills that would prevent President Donald Trump from taking military action against Iran without congressional authorization.
Border processing times seem to have returned to normal, according to those at the news conference, although Masih Fouladi, executive director of the Washington chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said “normal” often includes extra questioning for those born in Iran.
That hadn’t been the case for Hekmati and her family, though. They had previously lived in Canada and returned there often to vacation and visit family, usually whizzing past the CBP booths after only a few questions, she said. They have Nexus cards that are supposed to allow expedited processing.
This time, they had been in Canada for several days, skiing and seeing family, when they approached the crossing. When the officer found out that Hekmati and her husband had been born in Iran — one child was born in Canada and the other in the U.S. — the officer told them to park and go inside.
There, they were asked to give information about family members in the U.S. and Iran, about the mandatory military service her husband did and about their Facebook and email accounts. When they asked how long they would have to wait, the officers were pleasant but said, “this is out of our hands,” Hekmati said.
Sepehr Ebrahimzadeh, an Iranian-born Canadian citizen and U.S. green-card holder, said he knew without asking why he was he being held with his American girlfriend for five hours. “I’m an adult. I watch the news,” he said. “I understand we’re in a high alert situation.”
But it worries Ebrahimzadeh, a Seattle software engineer who worked at Amazon and Google before becoming a consultant. “I’m just wondering, where are we supposed to go?”
The Bellevue woman held for 11 hours whom Barón talked to, who is also a Canadian citizen with a U.S. green card, said she asked border officials if she could return to Vancouver. The woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing her citizenship application, said she was told no. She met one Canadian of Iranian descent there who lived near the border. He planned to cross into the U.S. to get cheap gas before taking his wife on an anniversary trip back in Canada, but had to cancel their hotel reservation while held in limbo.
The Bellevue woman said she started to break down around 4 a.m., after 10 hours of waiting, and went to her car to lie down and cry. “I was really exhausted.”
She wants to go back to Canada later this month, when her sister is due to give birth, but worries she will face a similar ordeal.
Another woman of Iranian descent, in the Blaine station for about eight hours, said she will continue to visit family in Canada — her dad may have an operation soon — but won’t bring her 5- and 11-year-olds. She asked that her name not be used so that future crossings won’t become more difficult.
Despite the experience, she said she was impressed by how respectful both the officers and those waiting were. A man approached the officer questioning her and said he was diabetic and needed to eat, she said. The officer immediately stopped, wrote down the address of the CBP station and suggested he order a pizza be delivered. Several people called for pizzas in the end, and they were shared.
Nadia Tommalieh, a U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent, said she complained about discrimination and was told by an officer: “We’re following orders. I know it’s frustrating.”
Ballout, an Everett lawyer who lives in Seattle, said an officer similarly empathized after stopping him at one of the small crossings east of Blaine. This goes higher up than my boss or his boss, Ballout said the officer told him.
What those orders were and who gave them remained unclear yesterday. Jayapal said she was trying to get to the bottom of it.
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