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Leaked memo shows US border officers were told to interrogate Iranian Americans

24th Mar 2020
Leaked memo shows US border officers were told to interrogate Iranian Americans

(Credit: James Tourtellotte/US Customs & Border Protection Flickr)

Harun Nasrullah

A leaked memo anonymously sent to an immigration attorney has revealed that that the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) lied about not directing US border officers to detain and question Iranian American travellers.

The memo, published by CNN last month is titled, ‘Iranian Supreme leader vows forceful revenge after [the] US kills Maj. General Qasem Suleimani in Baghdad – threat alert high’ was sent to officers working at Canadian ports of entry, in the wake of the killing of a top Iranian general on January 3.

The memo, which was issued by the Tactical Analytical Unit of the CBP’s Seattle office, states that, anyone born in Iran, Lebanon or the Palestinian territories between 1961 and 2001 should be vetted, along with anyone who has connections to those countries and territories.

CBP officials have previously denied that there was any directive to question people at the border based on ethnicity after dozens of American citizens of Iranian descent said they were stopped at a port of entry in Blaine and Washington in early January following the general’s death.

Some were detained for hours and reported that they were asked detailed questions about their country of birth as well as religious affiliations and military service. Others alleged their passports and car keys had been taken by officers during questioning.

The memo instructs officers to ask questions about connections to the military, particularly Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its elite Quds force and is charged with carrying out and coordinating overseas operations.

‘What NTC is looking for is membership in a specialized unit – QUDS forces: however, this group is so elite and well-trained to evade,’ the memo reads in part. ‘Anyone can state they are from a different faith to mask their intentions. TAU recommends scrutiny on military questions. We have not yet had anyone admit being in IRGC or QUDS forces yet.’

Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal said, if verified, this is “absolutely unacceptable, and it reminds us of the dark times in our country’s history. We cannot implement loyalty tests or discriminate against individuals in the name of national security.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said the CBP “has been caught in a lie.”

Speaking on January 26, CBP Office of Field Operations Executive Director, Dan Tanciar, said, “We would point back to the previous statements that we’ve had on the issue, but I will say, that we do not, there is no policy, there is no rule that would permit us to target or stop individuals based on one, their nationality alone. We have lots of facts that we have to cover, but that specific incident that you raised is under investigation and I will have to defer any kind of comment on that until that’s run its course.”

The memo also instructs the officers to probe the travellers about their sect, ‘Even if they are not of SHIA faith, anyone can state they are Baha’i, please question further to determine this is the case. When in doubt, send for high side check.’

It says to vet ‘Palestinians and Lebanese’ who ‘may have travelled to/from Israel and Jordan.’
As well as ‘Iranian and Lebanese nationals… from [the] Middle East, Africa, and Latin America (include Iranian/Lebanese nationals) with Nexus to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Israel.’ The memo also states that ‘Any other nationality that has travelled to Iran or Lebanon’ should also be vetted.

Immigration Attorney Leonard Saunders, who provided the document to CNN, said it was delivered to his office on January 29 by a man who wished to remain anonymous.
Iranian-Americans said they were detained at the Blaine, Washington, crossing, over the first weekend of the new year.

CBP confirmed there were increased wait times ‘to an average of two hours on Saturday (January 4) evening, although some experienced wait times of up to four hours due to increased volume and reduced staff during the holiday season.’

But the agency categorically denied there was any directive to stop and question people of Iranian descent. CBP Press Secretary, Matt Leas, said in a January 5 statement ‘social media posts that CBP is detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the US because of their country of origin are false. Reports that DHS/CBP has issued a related directive are also false.’

In a message sent to congressional staff, CBP reiterated that there was no national directive or memo ‘from DHS or CBP leadership with instructions to detain Iranian-Americans.’

An email sent by an unnamed CBP officer to Saunders in which that officer wrote, ‘This thing that happened was Seattle Field Office wide.’ Stating, ‘Multiple Americans of Persian birth were held and interrogated at length.’ He said the directive was only lifted January 5, ‘as soon as it hit the national news.’

The officer said he was directly involved in the questioning of Iranian-born. ‘We asked them standard counter-terrorism inspection questions. Was there an Immigration reason for detaining them? No. Was there a Customs reason for detaining them? No. Was the sole reason we detained and questioned them due to their national origin? Yes. Was it the right thing to do? No. Where (sic) their constitutional rights violated? Probably.’


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