When Customs and Border Protection acting Commissioner Mark Morgan admitted in February that agents had improperly detained Iranian Americans at the US-Canada border, he said in “one instance leadership got a little overzealous”, MSN news reported.
But agency documents made public Tuesday by order of a federal judge indicate that Customs agents held far more people at the Blaine, Wash., border crossing in early January than previously revealed. The internal emails show that in all, agents sent 277 people for secondary, intensive questioning — sometimes for several hours overnight.
Agency spokesmen released a statement at the time saying that reports of Iranian Americans being detained or refused entry because of their national origin were false, and blamed delays on short staffing and other factors. But representatives of advocacy organizations noted Tuesday that the emails showed the agency had issued a directive ordering the detentions, and Morgan had subsequently approved the public statement.
“This directive was blatantly unconstitutional,” said Matt Adams, legal director of the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “It violates constitutional protections saying that you can’t discriminate against anyone based on race or national heritage.”
Numerous accounts surfaced after the weekend of Jan. 4-5 from US citizens and permanent residents of Iranian descent who said they had been singled out as they tried to return to the US from Canada. Some described being held for hours overnight with their children and subjected to intensive questioning.
Officials and civil rights advocates came to the defense of those who described being held. The Council on American-Islamic Relations estimated that more than 60 Iranians and Iranian Americans were delayed, some for as many as 12 hours. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said that denials of the reports were not credible.
In February, the council sued the Customs agency and the Department of Homeland Security in US District Court in Seattle, asking a judge to compel officials to release documents the organization had requested under the Freedom of Information Act. On Oct. 5, US District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez ordered officials to make documents public, and on Tuesday the agencies released a first batch.
The records, which the advocacy groups in turn made public, do not contain the Customs agency’s directive, but they refer to it. Adams said the agency has provided the directive to the judge, who is considering whether to require officials to release it and make public the redacted portions of the documents.
Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said the newly revealed documents confirm “what many suspected.”
“Not only is such wanton discrimination illegal, but this revelation also demonstrates an unapologetic, carefully constructed attempt by the CBP to cover up their unconscionable actions,” Abdi said in a statement.
“This is a chilling warning of the dangers of a presidential administration, and an agency culture, that considers itself above the law and Constitution.”