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Iranian-Canadian detained at U.S. border warns of 'slippery slope' ahead
VANCOUVER -- Negah Hekmati is worried about her children's future.
Her family was detained and questioned for five hours over the weekend by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the British Columbia-Washington State border. The experience left her eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter feeling scared and anxious, and Hekmati concerned.
“As soon as (CBP officers) realized we were born in Iran, they led us (inside to secondary inspection),” Hekmati said. “It’s not OK. My kids should be proud of their ancestors and of their heritage.”
Hekmati, who holds both Canadian and American citizenship, and lives in the Seattle area, is one of an estimated 150 Iranian nationals caught up in what appear to be enhanced entry measures put into practice at the Blaine, Wash. U.S. Port of Entry over the weekend.
Civil rights groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) say some families were detained up to 12 hours, and many were not released until after midnight.
“We heard tragic and troubling stories of what would be akin to loyalty questions being asked of these individuals,” Masih Fouladi, CAIR’s executive director for Washington State told a news conference in Seattle.
Hekmati, her husband and her children were returning home from a ski trip to British Columbia. She remembers being asked questions about her social media, her family history and current connections in Iran.
Hekmati said her daughter pleaded with her, "Don't speak Farsi. Maybe they won't know we're Iranian."
Tehran-born Sam Sadr from North Vancouver has a similar story to tell. Sadr has lived in Canada 18 years and became a citizen two years ago.
When he and his parents pulled up to the Peace Arch crossing Saturday morning for what they hoped would be a shopping trip to Seattle, Sadr said the CBP officer sent them inside to secondary inspection.
Sadr said he was shocked when officers asked him about his military service in Iran and whether he had ties to any terrorist organizations.
“I am not a terrorist,” Sadr told CTV News on Monday. “I am a tourist. I am a Canadian citizen.”
Sadr says he and his family were held without their passports for nearly nine hours.
“This seemed to be a directive to pull aside anyone of Iranian-American descent,” Washington State Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal told a news conference on Monday.
“There was some sort of an order here, and we’re trying to get to the bottom of it."
In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said reports of a directive were false, but acknowledged that “based on the current threat environment, (it’s) operating with an enhanced posture at its ports of entry.”
The spokesperson went on to write that “CBP does not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”
CBP refused to answer CTV’s questions about the role a legal immigrant’s nationality or place of birth play in the entry process, or whether front line officers received any kind of updated guidance on Iranian nationals from CBP management or from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Homeland Security issued a bulletin under its National Terrorism Advisory System on Saturday which cautioned that “Homegrown Violent Extremists could capitalize on the heightened tensions [with Iran] to launch individual attacks.”
That bulletin was issued just hours after a U.S. drone strike killed General Qassem Soleimani, widely understood to have been the most powerful man in Iran’s military, outside Baghdad airport.
Hekmati worried her children might be bullied, or worse, if tensions between Washington and Iran continue to escalate, and fears what her family experienced at the border might foreshadow more serious changes in the future.
“It shouldn’t be OK,” Hekmati said. “I’m afraid that’s a slippery slope.”
And Sam Sadr said his first experience in the U.S. would likely be his last, at least for the foreseeable future.
“I tell the border person you never see me here again, I never come back,” Sadr told CTV News on Monday. “He said: OK. Good luck.”