Customs and Border Protection officials have never fully explained what happened on a January weekend when hundreds of people born in Iran were held for as long as nine hours at the Blaine border.
An apparent memo leaked later that month appeared to show Seattle Field Office leadership directed officers to send individuals born in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East into an extra screening process, fearing retaliation after the U.S. killing of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
But Customs and Border Protection (CBP) did not confirm the memo.
Now, documents ordered released by a federal judge as part of a lawsuit brought by the Council on American Islamic Relations — Washington (CAIR-WA) — as well as separate CBP documents obtained by The Seattle Times — offer unequivocal confirmation.
An email thread obtained by the Times includes a draft of a Seattle Field Office memo, submitted for approval to then Director of Field Operations Adele Fasano on Friday, Jan. 3, after she told her team to “please initiate heightened security measures immediately.” The proposed “procedure for Iranian vetting” almost exactly matches the memo leaked in late January to a Blaine attorney. “OK,” Fasano responded.
The proposed guidance required a “secondary” inspection for individuals born after 1961 and before 2001 and meeting certain criteria — among them being “Iranian and Lebanese nationals” or having “any Nexus” to “Palestinians and Lebanese.”
The guidance was summed up in a Jan. 7 email to CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez, contained in 237 pages of emails and reports ordered released by Chief Judge Ricardo Martinez in the U.S. District Court of Western Washington, and made public last week by CAIR-WA’s attorneys. “In response to potential retaliatory threats and heighten vigilance Seattle Field Office advised area ports to refer all encounters with individuals from areas of national concern to secondary for additional inspection and vetting.”
The individuals were not to be let go without approval from Fasano and her assistant director, according to documents, suggesting why they were held for so long.
The court-released records also provide new details about how many people were held. In a 24-hour period, 277 people went through a prolonged inspection in Blaine, including 85 U.S. citizens and 48 lawful permanent residents.
Seventy percent were held for more than three hours and nearly a third for more than five hours. Two people couldn’t leave for more than nine hours.
The Seattle Field Office oversees five states from Washington to Minnesota. But most of those subject to intensive vetting appeared to be traveling through Blaine, judging by the records and interviews with people affected. Elsewhere in the country, what CBP called an “enhanced posture” also resulted in the questioning of some Iranian-born individuals, like a Canadian citizen turned away at Port Huron, Michigan, when it was determined he once served in Iran’s military.
But reports of such encounters contained in the released documents suggest the numbers outside Blaine were small.
What was happening at Washington’s biggest border station quickly hit Twitter and prompted attention from reporters. Late Sunday morning, the Seattle Field Office was told “not to target people based on nationality but rather on threat indicators,” and the office issued a “course correction,” according to a detailed timeline dated Jan. 8.
As people came forward to talk about being held for hours, sometimes with young children, top CBP officials themselves were looking for answers, according to documents. “We need to be clear what occurred,” wrote one official. “Otherwise we will continue to have questions come in.”
Yet, publicly, CPB issued a firm denial: “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.”
Fasano, the Seattle field operations director, declined to confirm the leaked memo in a February meeting with Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal and Suzan DelBene, both Washington Democrats, according to Jayapal spokesperson Chris Evans. Despite being emailed a draft of the guidance, the CBP official said she learned of the prolonged inspections from news reports, expressed regret, and pledged to get to the bottom of what occurred.
Later that month, CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said at a news conference that officials in Blaine had gotten “a little overzealous.”
The lack of transparency prompted CAIR-WA to sue for a full release of records, said Matt Adams of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which is representing CAIR-WA. The documents made public last week are the first batch.
“You can’t just sweep this under the carpet,” Adams said.
“There is no basis for detaining individuals due to their national origin,” added Imraan Siddiqi, CAIR-WA’s executive director, in a statement. “Not only were the CBP’s actions illegal, but they explicitly colluded to cover it up and keep their actions from the American people.”
Asked if CBP would now confirm and explain the January guidance, spokesperson Jason Givens said: “As a matter of policy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not comment on pending litigation.”