Congresswoman eyes document on border detention of Iranians

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FILE - In this Oct. 9, 2019, file photo, pedestrians take a photo at an entry sign as traffic enters the United States from Canada at the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Wash. U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal said Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, she is working to authenticate an apparently leaked document showing that Customs and Border Protection agents on the U.S.-Canada border in Washington state were in fact ordered to detain Iranian and Iranian-American travelers early this month, despite initial agency denials. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

SEATTLE, Wash. – A U.S. congresswoman was working Thursday to verify a document showing that despite agency denials, Customs and Border Protection agents were ordered to detain Iranian and Iranian-American travelers at the U.S.-Canada border in Washington state early this month.

As many as 200 travelers with links to Iran were detained for as long as 12 hours as they crossed the border from Canada into Washington state the weekend of Jan. 5-6, following a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general, according to U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who is trying to authenticate the document.

Many of those detained were U.S. citizens and some had even been cleared to participate in a program for trusted travelers.

CBP said at the time it had not targeted Iranian-Americans based on their country of origin or issued any such directive to its officers.

But Len Saunders, an immigration attorney in Blaine, Washington, said an anonymous source on Wednesday provided him a copy of a directive apparently issued by CBP's Seattle field office that said agents should “conduct vetting” on Iranian, Lebanese and Palestinian nationals born between 1961 and 2001. It also said anyone else who had traveled to Iran or Lebanon should be screened.

The document was first reported by The Northern Light, a community newspaper in Blaine.

Border agents typically have discretion to refer a traveler for additional inspection, such as when their paperwork is not in order or if something raises the agent's suspicion. But immigrant rights groups and lawmakers said singling out Iranian-Americans absent such factors was wrong and violated their right to equal protection under the law.

In a letter Jan. 7, Jayapal asked the Trump administration to produce within two weeks any directives or other guidance regarding the screening of people with Iranian heritage. The administration did not meet that deadline, she said, but it provided a telephone briefing last week indicating such guidance had been issued.