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US border agents detained Iran-linked travellers unlawfully, emails show

Border agency misled the public earlier this year when it said it was not holding anyone based on country of origin, emails released following court ruling show
Border agents were high on alert after the targeted killing of Soleimani, according to the released emails.
Border agents were on high alert after the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, according to released emails (AFP/File photo)

US border officers working at multiple crossings with Canada detained hundreds of travellers of Iranian descent, including American citizens, in the wake of the killing of a top Iranian general in early January, newly released documents show.

The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project (NWIRP), found that US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) repeatedly misled the public when they said they were not detaining anyone based on their identity or nationality.

A federal court in Seattle, Washington ordered on Tuesday that the interdepartmental emails of the CBP needed to be made public.

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According to the released emails, the CBP's field office in Seattle issued a directive in early January that "all persons (males and females) born after 1961 and born before 2001 with links to Palestine, Lebanon, or Iran were to be vetted with extra questioning on their entry to the United States from British Columbia, Canada".

According to the emails, the Seattle field office of the CBP issued a directive that targeted Iranian Americans, saying that officers must "refer all encounters with individuals from areas of national concern for additional inspection and vetting".

"The Constitution makes clear that discrimination based on national origin like this is unlawful," Matt Adams, legal director for NWIRP, said in a statement.

"Yet the records plainly demonstrate that CBP officials detained hundreds of people, including scores of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents solely because of where they were born," he said.

"Moreover, the records make clear that authorities then lied about it. We urge Congress and the incoming Biden administration to hold CBP officials accountable for violating the civil rights of Iranian-Americans, among others."

High alert after Soleimani killing

In January, Middle East Eye reported that as many as 150 Iranian Americans had been detained at a US-Canada border crossing in the state of Washington.

Many had crossed the Peace Arch border in Blaine, Washington, returning home from an Iranian pop concert on Saturday in Vancouver, Canada.

The now-released documents and emails show that the number was far higher, with more than 250 people having been subject to secondary screenings, 80 of them being US citizens.

The individuals were detained for hours, with some having to stay in holding for more than nine hours before being released.

'Not only were the CBP’s actions illegal, but they explicitly colluded to cover it up and keep their actions from the American people'

- Imraan Siddiqi, CAIR-Washington's director

The detentions came during a tumultuous period at the start of the year when the Trump administration ordered the assassination of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

According to the emails, border agents were on high alert after the targeted killing.

The two rights organisations are waiting for an additional court order to be able to receive further documents from the CBP, but for now, CAIR-Washington's director Imraan Siddiqi said that the court's decision to order the release of the emails was a huge victory.

"There is no basis for detaining individuals due to their national origin," said Siddiqi.

"Not only were the CBP's actions illegal, but they explicitly colluded to cover it up and keep their actions from the American people."

"It is our duty as civil rights activists to ensure that CBP is held accountable for these flagrant violations to ensure our communities are protected."