This past weekend, there were reports of Iranian Americans experiencing increased screening when returning to the United States from Canada by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — as many as 200 across the country. According to news sources, Iranian Americans were held at Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine near the border for as long as 12 hours, while other American citizens who were not of Iranian descent were allowed smooth travel.
It has resulted in many Iranian Americans cancelling vacation plans and international trips due to fear of detainment — or worse.
The actions of CBP appear in response to a U.S. airstrike last Friday that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the foreign wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a move that Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zari described as an act of “international terrorism” on the part of the United States. Analysts have speculated that Tehran would likely consider Soleimani’s death an act of war.
While the increased scrutiny on Iranian Americans and the killing of Qassem Soleimani appear to relate to one another, CBP’s official stance is that they do not. CBP has stated that while there is enhanced security at ports of entry into the United States, there is no “directive” from headquarters to detain Iranian Americans.
Yet, even journalist and historian John Ghazvinian, a U.S. citizen and interim director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who was born in Iran, said on Twitter that he was pulled aside for additional screening after landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York over the weekend.
Negah Hekmati, who was coming back to Washington after skiing and visiting with family in Canada, was held for five hours by immigration authorities, along with her family and friends. She said that they took her family’s car keys and passwords. She said that officers questioned them all extensively on their social media accounts and her husband’s military history. She said her kids were terrified.
But CBP still wants to maintain that there is no directive from high up to detain Iranian Americans.
On page 5 of this week’s paper, there’s a story about how the skeletal remains of Giichi Matsumura, who was imprisoned at Manzanar, one of 10 American concentration camps where more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II because the government feared these individuals would remain loyal to their ancestral homeland.
What is happening to Iranian Americans is this foreboding echo of the past.
What we often like to tell children in school is that we learn history so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it. What we sometimes neglect to push as hard on is that we also must hold those who look to perpetrate tragedies of the past accountable and call things what they are. Iranian Americans are being detained, not merely “screened.”
What is happening to them is unfair and excessive and also pointlessly discriminatory — and also probably completely illegal. It is unbelievable that we have to tell an agency to stop doing something that is illegal — but we must. We must call on CBP to stop targeting citizens immediately, based on heritage alone. We must examine what policies, procedures, and rhetoric are in place that allows this to continue happening. We have to speak up for others.