SEATTLE — An investigation into what led dozens of Iranian-Americans being slowed down at a border crossing into Washington has Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal looking into whether a directive targeted specific residents based on their lineage. The events in question unfolded Saturday night, and Sunday morning at the Peach Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Washington.
As many as 60 Iranian-Americans were allegedly detained, but Customs and Border Patrol has denied that anyone was “detained.” That’s left advocacy groups accusing CBP of using semantics while treating U.S. citizens differently based on where they were born.
“These families were not free to leave,” said Jorge Baron, executive director with the Northwest Human Rights Project.
“Yes, they’re not in a locked room per se. They’re not in a cell, but you’re in a secondary area where your passports have been taken away from you. And even if these folks wanted to somehow go back to Canada they couldn’t because they didn’t have their passports with them.”
Initial reports from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington sounded that alarm that more than 60 Iranian-Americans were detained.
On Monday morning, we heard the story directly from one of the women involved: Negah Hekmati.
Hekmati, who holds citizenship in multiple countries, was reluctant to speak. She did so, in her own words, “because this isn’t okay.”
“As an immigrant I’m used to this stuff, unfortunately,” said Hekmati. “I’m here today because of my kids. They shouldn’t experience such things, they are U.S. citizens.”
Hekmati said she was held, along with her husband and daughter, for five hours. She said her daughter was anxious and scared about what was happening – according to Hekmati, she thought if she fell asleep at the border crossing she’d wake up to find out her parents were taken to jail.
“My daughter, and my friend’s daughter couldn’t go to sleep,” she said, explaining that her daughter was afraid that her mother was going to be arrested. “My daughter was telling me, ‘Please don’t speak Farsi, if you don’t speak Farsi maybe they don’t take you.’”
Hekmati said she was asked about her extended family, her Facebook page, her e-mail address and other personal questions.
CAIR has said that some Iranian-Americans were questioned about what country their loyalties lied, though Hekmati said she was not personally asked that question.
In a statement to KIRO 7, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Mike Friel denied that Iranian-Americans were detained: “Social media posts that CBP is detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entering into the U.S. because of their country of origin are false. Reports that DHS/CBP has issued a related directive are also false.”
Jayapal questioned the veracity of the statement, stating that her office is now investigating to find out whether a directive was ordered.
“It is difficult to believe that when you listen to the multiple accounts of what happened,” said Jayapal.
She doubled-down questioning reports of short staffing, telling reporters that the only people that seemed to get held back were people of Iranian descent.
The Congresswoman compared this to her time as an activist following 9/11 and learning about deportations, and the Muslim ban shortly after President Trump took office.
“We continue to have a very skewed notion of what it means to be a U.S. citizen,” said Rep. Jayapal. “This appears to be another attempt to target and isolate a community that, very much, is part of our social fabric.”