Iranian-American describes 5 hour delay for questioning at US border crossing

WEST ENFIELD, ME - AUGUST 01: A patch on the uniform of a U.S. Border Patrol agent at a highway checkpoint on August 1, 2018 in West Enfield, Maine. The checkpoint took place approximately 80 miles from the US/Canada border. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Negah Hekmati, an Iranian-American who was stopped at a US-Canada border crossing in Washington state, said Monday that US officials asked intrusive questions while she was held for five hours over the weekend amid escalating tensions with Iran.

“As soon as they realized that we were born in Iran, they led us to the office and they held us there for five hours. They asked many questions, many personal questions, like our Facebook accounts and like my parents’ full names and birth date,” Hekmati, a US citizen, said during a news conference with Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington.

“Our kids were so anxious. They didn’t go to sleep because they were afraid that if they sleep … they’re going to take us to the jail and they’ll wake up not seeing us,” Hekmati said.

“It’s not OK,” she later added. “I’m afraid it’s a slippery slope.”

Hekmati was one of the Iranian-Americans held for an extended period of time at a port of entry in Washington over the weekend, sparking outrage among immigrant advocates and lawyers concerned over possible targeting of Iranians entering the US.

Masih Fouladi, executive director of the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, shared accounts of people waiting eight to 11 hours. “We heard stories of them being told to list the names of all their Iranian family members, give them their emails, turn over social media,” Fouladi said.

Matt Adams, legal director for Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, told CNN he spoke with a mother traveling with her two young daughters who waited six hours after being pulled aside for additional questioning.

In a message sent to congressional staff Monday and obtained by CNN, US Customs and Border Protection reiterated that there was no directive or memo “from DHS or CBP leadership with instructions to detain Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S because of their country of origin.”

CBP said that field leadership participated in a “teleconference with Acting Commissioner Morgan and Deputy Commissioner Perez, where the field was asked to remain vigilant and increase their situational awareness given the evolving threat environment,” according to the message.

Acting Secretary Chad Wolf stated that “DHS was operating under an enhanced posture due to the current threat environment,” the memo added.

On Sunday, CBP disputed social media posts claiming the agency had detained Iranian-Americans and refused entry. The agency also said that the Blaine, Washington, port of entry experienced increased wait times “to an average of two hours on Saturday evening, although some travelers experienced wait times of up to four hours due to increased volume and reduced staff during the holiday season.”

The agency declined to comment on reports that some people were questioned at the point of entry about their political views.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, is reviewing a complaint filed by the National Iranian American Council in response to concerns that Iranian Americans were being targeted for secondary questioning on the basis of national origin, according to NIAC policy director Ryan Costello. The scope of the investigation was not immediately clear.

Former Department of Homeland Security officials noted that CBP has discretion to pull people aside for secondary inspection. Country of origin can be one of the factors for which travelers will be asked additional questions by customs officers when entering the United States, said former US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, who pointed out that being pulled into secondary inspection doesn’t mean someone will be denied entry into the US.

Kerlikowske added that it’s likely that a security bulletin, such as the one issued by the Department of Homeland Security over the weekend, would be shared with officers working at the port. On Saturday, DHS updated its terrorism threat advisory system following the US airstrike targeting a top Iranian general, warning of the threat for an Iranian cyber attack and inspired homegrown violent extremists.

“There’s briefings and roll call and information that’s given to these folks at the beginning of every shift,” he said.

Margo Schlanger, law professor at University of Michigan and former head of the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said agency policy governs the use of national origin as an investigative and screening criteria.

“The policy says, ‘look you can do it if it’s based on intelligence and risk and if there’s no adequate alternatives,'” Schlanger, who worked on the 2013 policy, said. “On the basis of heightened tensions, if that’s the underlying basis, that’s not intelligence. I don’t understand what the point of extended questions of Americans is anyway because they have a right to be admitted to the country because they’re US citizens. So that too would be troubling.”

Democratic Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee called the reports “deeply alarming.”

“We can never forget that Japanese-Americans were detained in Washington state during World War II and their constitutional and civic rights were removed out of fear and hatred,” Inslee said in a statement. “This cannot become a new era of intimidation and division.”

Jayapal said Monday that her office is continuing to look into the situation.

Adams said his team is also monitoring the situation. “We’re closely monitoring whether we’re going to file a lawsuit to challenge the targeting of US citizens and lawful permanent residents of Iranian heritage,” he told CNN.

CNN’s Geneva Sands and Andy Rose contributed to this report.