Customs held more Iranian Americans, others at Canada border

When Customs and Border Protection acting Commissioner Mark Morgan admitted in February that agents had improperly detained Iranian Americans at the U.S.-Canada border, he said in “one instance leadership got a little overzealous.”

But agency documents made public Tuesday by order of a federal judge indicate that Customs agents held far more people at the Blaine, Wash., border crossing in early January than previously revealed. The internal emails show that in all, agents sent 277 people for secondary, intensive questioning — sometimes for several hours overnight.

Agency spokesmen released a statement at the time saying that reports of Iranian Americans being detained or refused entry because of their national origin were false, and blamed delays on short staffing and other factors. But representatives of advocacy organizations noted Tuesday that the emails showed the agency had issued a directive ordering the detentions, and Morgan had subsequently approved the public statement.

“This directive was blatantly unconstitutional,” said Matt Adams, legal director of the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “It violates constitutional protections saying that you can’t discriminate against anyone based on race or national heritage.”

Numerous accounts surfaced after the weekend of Jan. 4-5 from U.S. citizens and permanent residents of Iranian descent who said they had been singled out as they tried to return to the U.S. from Canada. Some described being held for hours overnight with their children and subjected to intensive questioning.

The detentions occurred soon after Qassem Suleimani, a high-ranking Iranian general, was killed in a U.S. strike Jan. 3 in Baghdad.

Officials and civil rights advocates came to the defense of those who described being held. The Council on American-Islamic Relations estimated that more than 60 Iranians and Iranian Americans were delayed, some for as many as 12 hours. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said that denials of the reports were not credible.

In February, the council sued the Customs agency and the Department of Homeland Security in U.S. District Court in Seattle, asking a judge to compel officials to release documents the organization had requested under the Freedom of Information Act. On Oct. 5, U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez ordered officials to make documents public, and on Tuesday the agencies released a first batch.

The records, which the advocacy groups in turn made public, do not contain the Customs agency’s directive, but they refer to it. Adams said the agency has provided the directive to the judge, who is considering whether to require officials to release it and make public the redacted portions of the documents.

Officials declined to comment Tuesday on the documents, the directive and their efforts to conceal it.

“As a matter of policy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not comment on pending litigation,” spokesman Jason Givens said in an emailed statement.

A lack of comment, he added, “should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.”

Additional documents obtained by The Times show that on Jan. 3, the agency’s Seattle field office put into place official guidance targeting people based on nationality.

The correspondence shows the agency planned to send to secondary questioning or to a Tactical Terrorism Response Team “all persons” born between 1961 and 2001 with links — including place of birth, travel or citizenship — and “with any Nexus to the following countries: Palestinians and Lebanese [who] may have traveled to/from Israel and Jordan” as well as Iranian and Lebanese nationals from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

Officials said in one email that in light of the U.S. killing of Suleimani, it “is prudent at this time to heighten our vigilance against any potential retaliation.”

An “intel collection guide” used by the Customs agency looked for travelers’ background information, such as which high school or madrassa they attended and their prior military service, documents show. The guide also included a portion about whether a traveler’s cellphone had been searched, the phone’s make and model, and room for including any social media handles or URLs for apps including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, WhatsApp and Signal.

Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said the newly revealed documents confirm “what many suspected.”

“Not only is such wanton discrimination illegal, but this revelation also demonstrates an unapologetic, carefully constructed attempt by the CBP to cover up their unconscionable actions,” Abdi said in a statement. “This is a chilling warning of the dangers of a presidential administration, and an agency culture, that considers itself above the law and Constitution.”

In another email — dated Jan. 7, and among those released per the judge’s order — officials said that nearly half of the people held were detained for over four hours, and some were delayed for more than nine. Yet, when reporters asked officials about the detentions in January, they said people were held an average of two hours, and a maximum of four hours.

In the Jan. 7 email, an official named Todd Hoffman wrote that 277 people had been sent to secondary inspection in the 24 hours between noon on Jan. 3 and noon on Jan. 4.

These included 85 U.S. citizens, 48 lawful permanent residents and 144 people from other countries, he reported in the memo. “Processing” times ranged from one hour to nine hours and 15 minutes, wrote Hoffman, who was listed in a 2019 agency document as executive director of admissibility and passenger programs.

In response to “potential retaliatory threats,” the Seattle field office told agents “to refer all encounters with individuals from areas of national concern to secondary” inspection for additional questioning, Hoffman wrote.

The office later amended instructions, he wrote, saying U.S. citizens, permanent residents and Canadians were exempt from secondary inspection, “provided there was no associated derogatory information.”

Iranian “non-immigrants” were to be referred to secondary to determine whether they had ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Hezbollah that would disqualify them from entry, he wrote.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) recalled in an interview Tuesday that when she saw cellphone photos of travelers held in secondary questioning in January, it was clear to her that most if not all of those being detained were of Iranian descent. Her office spoke with advocates and with people who had spent hours waiting to be released, she said.

“It was absolutely inconceivable that CBP from the beginning denied that this was an order that was given, even as we presented individual cases,” Jayapal said.

Particularly troubling, she said, is that many of those held for additional questioning were U.S. citizens. The documents present a “pattern of something that I feel like I am getting far too used to,” she said.

“Whether it is Iranian detention at the border, family separation, or the forced sterilization at an [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detention center in Georgia, the first response is denial, denial, denial,” she said. “What I see over and over again is that documents show CBP officers caught in a lie.”

Read reported from Seattle and Parvini from Los Angeles.