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CBP Appears To Have Lied In Leaked Memo, Directed Staff to Detain Travelers with Iranian Links

CBP Border Patrol agent conducts a pat down of a female Mexican being placed in a holding facility. Date: Unknown date Source: http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/newsroom/photo_gallery/afc/bp/33.xml (file Cbp033.jpg) Author: Gerald L. Nino, CBP, U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security

“It was very lengthy screening with no ability to leave. So whether you want to call that detention or something else is up to you. But the core fact of the matter remains. This seemed to be a directive to pull aside anybody of Iranian American descent.”

A leaked document from the Customs and Border Patrol might have caught the organization in a lie. The Northern Light, a Washington State-based newspaper, published the directive to detain travelers who were either born in or have links to Iran, Lebanon, and Palestine, even if they also hold American citizenship or permanent residence. 

Travelers had already reported facing increased scrutiny while returning to Washington from Canada, but CBP denied the allegations that it was targeting them due to their national origin. 

A Disproven Denial

“Social media posts that CBP is detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S. because of their country of origin are false. Reports that DHS/CBP has issued a related directive are also false,” CBP tweeted Jan. 5. 

According to the leaked document provided to The Northern Light, “updated procedures” were issued following Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s threat of retaliation for the assassination of his top general, Qassim Suleimani. The “high alert” called for enhanced security procedures for officials to follow. 

Travelers with links to the three states and any traveler who has traveled to Iran or Lebanon are subjected to additional interrogative procedures upon arrival to America. CBP officers were first instructed to contact the Tactical Terrorism Response Teams (TTRT) and Tactical Analytical Unit (TAU), which together are to coordinate on a traveler’s potential to be a terror threat.

The memo also called for vetting travelers based on links to the Iranian military, Baha’i religiosity, and associations to criminals. In particular, the document warns that any traveler can simply lie about their faith so “high side checks” might be required.

Unfairly Targeted

A CBP whistleblower initially informed The Northern Light about the directive on Jan. 22 after news reports featured stories of travelers who were detained for “up to 12 hours.” By that point, the operation had already been suspended for over 2 weeks, according to a directive from Blaine port director Kenneth Williams, The Northern Light reported.

Congressional representatives, such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., have taken notice, NPR reported. After John Ghazvinian, am Iranian-born US citizen, was detained and asked “how I feel about the situation with Iran,” Jayapal accused CPB of “playing semantics.” 

“It was very lengthy screening with no ability to leave. So whether you want to call that detention or something else is up to you. But the core fact of the matter remains,” Jayapal said. “This seemed to be a directive to pull aside anybody of Iranian American descent.”

The American Civil Liberties Union had already begun taking CPB to task over its secretive TTRT force in December. CPB declined to willingly provide more information about the TTRT despite it “deployed to at least 46 airports and other US ports of entry.” 

In November 2018, Andreas Gal, an Apple employee, was detained by TTRT at San Francisco International Airport. An American citizen returning from a business trip in Sweden, he was held for 15 hours before being released. 

In another instance, Abdikadir Mohamed arrived with appropriate immigration papers at JFK International Airport in December 2017. The TTRT elected to deport him and when he claimed asylum, he was held for 19 months in ICE detention before a judge approved his asylum claim, allowing him to join his family in Ohio.

The ACLU Goes to Court

The ACLU and New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court to force CBP to reveal information on TTRT.

“The public has a right to know how these teams operate, how their officers are trained, and whether the guidelines that govern their activities contain civil liberties and privacy safeguards,” the ACLU wrote. “We also want to know just how many individuals are subject to detention, questioning, and/or denial of entry into the U.S. by these teams, and the basis for these decisions.”

The ACLU noted CPB’s history of forging documents with fake court dates, misrepresenting statistics, and even admitting its officers detain travelers who are not actual security risks. 

“This kind of biased targeting is nakedly discriminatory. It wrongly renders whole classes of people inherently suspect simply by virtue of who their parents are, where they were born, or what religion they practice,” the ACLU said. “It is also, in many ways, an extension of the Muslim ban — which affects a large number of Iranians — and the Trump administration’s stereotyping, unjust profiling, and targeting of Muslims more broadly.”

Daniel Davis

Daniel Davis is Managing Editor for The Osage County Herald-Chronicle in Kansas and also covers International news for Inside Over, a Milan-based global affairs publication. He graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Outside of writing, he enjoys photography and one day hopes to return to video production. Learn more about him at his website danieldavis.la.

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