U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials said the agency made “enormous mistakes in protocol” when its officers questioned Iranian-born people — some for as long as 12 hours — at the U.S.-Canada border last month, according to U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
On Monday, Jayapal met with Adele Fasano, the director of field operations for the Seattle Field Office of Customs and Border Protection, and Fasano’s chief of staff, as well as U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene and representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier and Sen. Maria Cantwell.
In that meeting, Fasano said that the CBP’s previous statements denying that there had been a directive to question and hold Iranian and other foreign-born people from the Middle East were not true, said Jayapal, D-Seattle.
“It was extremely gratifying to, for the first time, hear from CBP that, in fact, something very serious went wrong that weekend,” Jayapal said. “That there were enormous protocols and mistakes made, and that there was guidance given — whether you call it guidance or not — but certainly directives given that translated into the Blaine CBP holding people for literally being born in a particular country.”
Not only is her office investigating what happened, Jayapal said, but at the same time, Fasano is calling for an investigation.
When asked for comment, CBP spokesman Jason A. Givens confirmed, “the matter is under investigation.” He then forwarded a statement “attributable to a CBP official” explaining the agency’s protocols without directly referencing last month’s actions.
“As part of a multi-layered approach to security, CBP officers may refer for additional screening individuals who present a known risk or individuals about whom we need more information to make a determination of risk,” the statement said. “These referrals are based on factors that could include the individual’s activities, associations and travel patterns.
“As a result, some travelers may experience increased wait times and subsequent interviews. CBP has established strict oversight policies and procedures to ensure traveler screening practices adhere to all constitutional and statutory requirements. CBP is committed to protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of every individual whom we encounter. Our officers are trained to enforce U.S. laws uniformly and fairly and they do not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”
The CBP’s Seattle Field Office covers 67 border crossings from Washington to Minnesota.
On Jan. 30, Blaine immigration lawyer Len Saunders said he obtained a photocopied memo from the CBP’s Seattle Field Office on a directive for prolonged stops and questioning of people based on their ethnic heritage who were crossing into the U.S. from Canada between Jan. 4 and 5. During that weekend, as many as 200 people were affected by the prolonged stops, which ended after immigrant advocates, the media and politicians called attention to what was happening.
The document, shared by Saunders with The Seattle Times and first reported by the Blaine newspaper The Northern Light, bears what looks like a Department of Homeland Security seal.
Jayapal said Monday the memo was verified by NBC News, and believes — based on the Monday meeting — that it is authentic.
Just weeks before, Saunders received an email from a CBP officer complaining about an “operation” to hold and question people of Iranian descent.
At the time, the CBP denied it was detaining those people as well as the existence of a directive.
Fasano only learned about the incidents through news reports, Jayapal said, and has “deep concerns” about what happened.
“There are lots of issues with what was and wasn’t reported,” she said Monday. “To me, if you’re detaining U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents for significant amounts of time and there are significant people there, you should not be finding out about that, as the director, through news reports.”
Jayapal was especially troubled by the lack of response from officials in Washington, D.C., to a letter she and DelBene sent last month to the chairs of the Judiciary Oversight and Homeland Security committees about the operation.
“And there is still no official statement from the CBP admitting that this actually did happen,” she said.
DelBene, D-Medina, agreed, saying in a statement: “It is disappointing that CBP officials were not honest about the incidents in Blaine when we first reached out to them with questions.”
In its statement, the CBP said the agency “has understood Iran and its proxies to be a very capable adversary for some time. Consistent with our statutory authorities, CBP leverages all available tools and information to ensure that individuals who seek entry into the United States are appropriately screened.”
The issue is personal for Jayapal, who was born in India and raised in Indonesia and Singapore, and is now vice chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“You would think we would have learned the lessons of the Japanese internment,” she said. “You would think we would have learned that submitting to a second loyalty test and profiling people — which is unconstitutional, by the way — is simply unacceptable.”
As for whether those held might take legal action, Jayapal said: “I would not be surprised and think that there probably should be, or would be, a lawsuit around it.”