By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
The land border between the U.S. and Canada is the longest in the world, and historically has not been nearly as tightly monitored as our country’s southern border with Mexico. While there are concerns about cross-border drug trafficking along certain southbound corridors, talk about terrorists potentially sneaking into the U.S. by land has typically focused on Mexico. However, recent detentions of American citizens of Iranian descent in Canada are raising red flags for both immigration authorities and advocacy groups.
According to the Seattle Times, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is opening an investigation into the many reports of people being stopped and questioned for hours during the weekend of Jan. 6 and seven at the Canadian border. Many of those who said they were stopped are of Iranian descent, although some are from other Middle Eastern countries.
Prolonged Detentions at Canadian Border
U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal’s office estimated that from 60 to 200 people were subject to prolonged detention, some lasting as long as 12 hours. According to WFTS ABC News, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said it assisted 60 Iranians and Iranian Americans who were allegedly held at the Blaine, Washington border crossing. CAIR stated that some of those held were returning to the United States after attending a concert in Vancouver, and that passports were confiscated before the individuals were questioned about their political views and allegiances.
Iran Threatens Retaliation
These detentions are occurring in the midst of a political and military crisis between the United States and Iran. Iran has threatened retaliation against the U.S. for the killing of top general Qasem Soleimani. The White House has put the military and all U.S. agencies on high alert over the expectation of a violent response from Iran to Soleimani’s death. Ostensibly, U.S. immigration officials are concerned about Hezbollah, the terrorist group sponsored by Iran, attempting to infiltrate its members into the country via land border.
The controversy arises because most of those detained of Iranian dissent are either American citizens or a legal permanent resident of the United States. Also, while Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials are allowed to take national origin into account when deciding whether to question someone at the border, it should not be the only factor, according to Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
The Muslim Ban
Iran is also one of the several countries listed on Executive Order 13769, most commonly known as the Muslim ban, enacted by President Trump shortly after his inauguration. While this travel ban is designed to prevent terrorists from entering the United States and denies visas to these nations’ citizens, many legal immigrants from these countries with American citizenship or legal residency have been detained at airports while trying to return home to the U.S.
No Directive To Detain Iranian Americans
On January 6, CBP issued a statement denying claims that Iranians and Iranian Americans were detained solely due to their country of origin. Washington Governor Jay Inslee disputed CBP’s denials as “simply not credible.” Per NPR, CBP also says there is enhanced security at ports of entry, but that there is no “directive” from headquarters to detain Iranian Americans because of their country of origin.