A Blaine immigration lawyer says he received an email from a Customs and Border Protection officer complaining about an “operation” to detain and question Iranian-born people crossing into the U.S. from Canada earlier this month, seeming to link it to “shenanigans” perpetuated by hard-line local officials.
“The knuckleheads that came up with this operation need to be reigned in,” reads the Jan. 14 email, shared by attorney Len Saunders with The Seattle Times and first reported by The Northern Light, a Blaine publication. Saunders said he knows the officer, who does not want to be named or speak to the media for fear of retaliation.
The email does not specifically say who those supposed knuckleheads might be, but it does center the operation on the CBP’s Seattle Field Office, which is headquartered in Blaine and covers 67 border crossings from Washington to Minnesota.
“This thing that happened was Seattle Field Office wide,” the email said, not just at the Blaine Peace Arch, as many media outlets initially reported.
The prolonged stops — up to 12 hours — affected as many as 200 people over the weekend of Jan. 4, according to U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s office. Things returned to normal after immigrant advocates, the media and politicians called attention to what was happening. What exactly that was remains in dispute, and who was responsible a mystery.
Despite many accounts to the contrary, CBP denied it was detaining Iranian Americans, perhaps because, as some suggested, the agency might have a strict definition of what it means to be “detained.”
Later, the agency sent an email to several members of Congress saying that top CBP officials had a teleconference asking field leadership to “remain vigilant and increase their situational awareness given the evolving threat environment.” The U.S. had just killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and there was talk of war.
In a seeming attempt to distance the national leadership from what was happening at the northern border, the email to members of Congress said that “field leadership has discretion on how to enhance operational posture” and that top leaders quickly contacted Blaine after hearing reports from there.
The CBP officer who wrote Saunders said Blaine Area Port Director Kenneth Williams sent an email at 1 p.m. that Sunday saying the operation was suspended.
The officer, who said he personally interrogated nine U.S. citizens, wrote bluntly about how he saw things.
“Was there an Immigration reason for detaining them? No. Was there a Customs reason for detaining them? No. Was the sole reason we detained and questioned them due to their national origin? Yes. Was it the right thing to do? No.”
The officer expressed larger frustrations with the leadership in Blaine and the field office that supervises it. John Dahm, who serves in Blaine as the assistant port director, “is the prime mover behind the ER crusade that the Blaine area has been on,” the officer wrote, referring to a marked uptick in “expedited removals,” whereby people are kicked out of the U.S. without an immigration court hearing. Seattle Field Operations Director Adele Fasano, appointed in January 2019, “has been wooed by him of late.”
“This is not why I joined Customs way back when. I wanted to stop terrorists and drugs from getting in to the United States,” the officer wrote.
Saunders and other immigration attorneys said they are also concerned about what they perceive as a change in tone and practices since Fasano took over. They note that along with the expedited removals have come five-year bars from entering the U.S. Such bars tripled, to 309, in the region covered by the Seattle Field Office from 2018 to 2019, according to CBP data given to CTV.
CBP has sometimes issued these bars for minor transgressions overlooked in the past, according to lawyers Abtin Bahador and Greg Boos, who work for a Bellingham firm.
For instance, they said, Canadian truckers have gotten them for transporting U.S. products, like Washington apples, to the Mexico border. Though the products are bound for Mexico, the truckers don’t actually cross the border, violating a prohibition on foreign truckers hauling products within the U.S.
“This is not the border Canadians have been used to for the last 50 years,” Bahador said.
A CBP statement acknowledges an increase in expedited removals in the Seattle Field Office but says it is not a result of a policy change. “The percentage of expedited removals is minuscule when compared to the overall number of travelers allowed to enter the U.S,” the statement said.