British Columbia

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal accuses U.S. border security of targeting Iranians in Blaine, Wash.

U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and other human rights advocates are condemning the up to 11-hour detentions of more than 60 Iranian-Americans at the U.S. border on Saturday at the Blaine, Wash., crossing.

Families with children held up to 12 hours

Rep. Pramila Jayapal is an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump. She has condemned the detention of Iranian-Americans at the U.S. border crossing in Blaine and is digging into whether there was a directive to target Iranians and where it came from. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and other human rights advocates are condemning the up to 12-hour detentions of more than 60 Iranian-Americans at the U.S. border on Saturday at the Blaine, Wash., crossing.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has said nobody was detained because of their background, and the delays at the border were related to staffing issues and a pop concert that large groups of Iranians were attending.

But Jayapal and other human rights advocates said what happened this weekend was wrong, if not illegal.

'This seemed to be a directive'

"It was the result of some sort of directive that we are trying to get to the bottom of what that was. I understand that CBP has said that no such thing occurred, but it is difficult to believe that when you listen to the multiple accounts of what happened," said Jayapal in a news conference in Seattle on Monday.

Jayapal is a U.S. representative from Washington's 7th congressional district which encompasses Seattle and suburban King County. 

Approximately 80 per cent of refugee claimants to B.C. cross the Canada-U.S. border through Peace Arch Park, in Surrey. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

She said her office is trying to gather information to determine exactly what happened and why.

"This seemed to be a directive to pull aside anybody of Iranian descent," said Jayapal.

She said witnesses described more than 60 people facing up to 11 or 12 hour delays as they crossed into the U.S. after shopping, skiing or visiting Canada for various reasons. 

"We have been in touch with a number of people  [U.S. citizens] who are afraid to say anything,' said Jayapal.

Many of the U.S. or Canadian citizens affected were also Nexus cardholders. A Nexus card is an expedited border control program designed to pre-approve low-risk travellers.

At the Monday morning news conference, 38-year-old interior designer Negah Hekmati, who settled in the U.S. more than seven years ago, described her ordeal at the border.

Children 'frightened'

Hekmati said she has a U.S. passport and often visits Canada.

On Saturday, she was returning from a ski trip when she, her five- and eight-year-old children and her husband faced a five-hour delay and questioning. She said that her passport and car keys were confiscated by authorities, and her family was not allowed to wait in their vehicle where the children could have slept.

"[The children] were very frightened," said Hekmati.

She described how her daughter feared being taken by authorities and urged her mother not to speak Farsi.

"My kids shouldn't experience such things. They are U.S. citizens," said Hekmati who holds Canadian, U.S. and Iranian citizenship.

"If there is a war, my kids will be picked on in school, because they speak fluent Farsi ... We chose this country [America], because we thought we were free.

Rights advocates at the news conference said that many U.S.-Iranians told a similar story of U.S. border patrol agents asking them to exit their cars and step inside the building. Once inside, their passports were confiscated and and they waited in lines before being questioned for hours about family, school and work histories. 

Jorge Barón is the executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Program (NWIRP). He said despite border officials claim that nobody was detained, "these people were not free to leave."

"We believe this was illegal."

In an earlier statement, Jayapal chastised the president for inciting or ordering policies that chip away at American freedoms.

Border staffing issues, Iranians not targeted

"If these reports are true, the Administration would be following its dangerous foreign policy decisions with dangerous policies here at home. Let me be clear: Instituting xenophobic, shameful and unconstitutional policies that discriminate against innocent people, trample over basic civil rights and put fear in the hearts of millions, do not make us safer" she wrote.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) denied reports of people being held for questioning, calling social media posts about this "false."

The CBP blamed longer wait-times on reduced staff due to holiday traffic and people returning from an Iranian pop concert.

But Washington state immigration lawyer Len Saunders said he believes the heightened scrutiny was related to U.S. President Donald Trump's order to have Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani killed.

Early Friday morning, a U.S. airstrike killed Soleimani, 62, and others as they travelled from Baghdad's international airport.

Following the strike, the Pentagon said Trump ordered the U.S. military to take "decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad."

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend

Yvette Brend

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