Groups demand answers after dozens of Iranians and Iranian Americans claim they were detained
SEATTLE - Civil rights groups and lawmakers were demanding information from federal officials following reports that dozens of Iranian-Americans were held up and questioned at the border as they returned to the United States from Canada over the weekend.
In a statement Sunday, the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said more than 60 Iranians and Iranian-Americans were detained and questioned at the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Washington. Many were returning from a concert by an Iranian pop star in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"Those detained reported that their passports were confiscated and they were questioned about their political views and allegiances," the statement said.
Tensions between the United States and Iran are high following a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad last week that killed a top Iranian general. Iran's leaders have vowed to retaliate.
Michael Friel, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said reports that Iranian-Americans were detained or refused entry because of where they were born were not true.
"'Based on the current threat environment, CBP is operating with an enhanced posture at its ports of entry to safeguard our national security and protect the America people while simultaneously protecting the civil rights and liberties of everyone," Friel said in a statement.
He said border wait times increased to an average of two hours Saturday evening at Blaine, Washington, because of increased traffic and reduced staffing because of the holiday season.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, tweeted Sunday that his office was trying to speak with people who experienced problems at the border crossing and was asking federal government officials for more information.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said she was also seeking answers. She planned a meeting Monday with Iranian-American community leaders in Seattle.
Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said he went to the border crossing at Blaine on Sunday in response to the reports. He tweeted that he spoke with one legal permanent resident of the U.S. who was detained for 11 hours overnight in "secondary screening" along with about 40 other people who had been born in Iran.
"Bottom-line: despite CBP denials, this was definitely happening," Baron wrote.
By Sunday afternoon the hold-ups had slowed, he said. He reported meeting with three families -- all U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents -- who had been delayed as long as 2 1/2 hours.
"@CBP claims that they were not `detaining' people but this is only true if you define `detain' to mean only to be placed in a locked room," Baron tweeted. "These individuals were in a waiting area and could walk to the parking lot but were not free to go: They were not being allowed to enter the U.S. (their only home) and CBP was holding their passports so they couldn't back to Canada even if they had wanted to."