Senate Democrats are asking the Trump administration if U.S. citizens were detained at airports and other ports of entry due to Iranian heritage after reports that Iranian Americans were held at border checkpoints earlier this month amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Twenty Senate Democrats signed onto a letter to the department on Tuesday asking acting Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Mark Morgan for answers regarding the reports of officers detaining travelers in early January based on Iranian national origin.
“As you are aware, CBP has the crucial responsibility of facilitating legitimate trade and travel through our ports of entry,” the Democrats wrote, according to a copy of the letter shared with The Hill.
“It is imperative that CBP follows our laws and does not discriminate based upon protected characteristics, as prolonged detainment of travelers based on discriminatory practices is a clear violation of CBP guidance,” the letter continues. “It is also vital that U.S. citizens and other travelers posing no risk to the homeland are not subject to unnecessary delay or unjustified intrusions as they transit across our border.”
Dozens of Iranians and Iranian Americans were held for hours at the Canadian and Washington state border the weekend of Jan. 4, The New York Times reported.
The report came amid increased security precautions following an escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which ramped up after President Trump ordered a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 4 that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and others.
The Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said in a statement at the time that it was assisting more than 60 Iranians and Iranian Americans who were detained “at length and questioned” at the border crossing.
Matt Leas, a CBP spokesman, disputed the accounts and reports of the detentions at the time.
Asked about the letter sent Tuesday, CBP spokesman Jason Givens told The Hill that the commissioner “will provide a response directly to the senators.” He also referred The Hill to the department’s statement on enhanced security posture.
“CBP has understood Iran and its proxies to be a very capable adversary for some time. Consistent with our statutory authorities, CBP leverages all available tools and information to ensure that individuals who seek entry into the United States are appropriately screened,” the department said in its statement.
It warned travelers may have “increased wait time and subsequent interviews” as part of its “multi-layered approach to security.” The statement adds that CBP is “committed to protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of every individual whom we encounter” and officers are trained to “enforce laws uniformly and fairly” and do not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
In the letter, Democrats ask CBP to provide any written or verbal guidance related to enhanced screening and non-routine inspections at ports of entries and airports that have taken place since Dec. 27.
Democrats are also asking for more specific information regarding the Peace Arch Border Crossing, which is between Washington state and Canada, for the weekend of Jan. 4. They’re asking for a list of Iranians and Iranian Americans who were referred for non-routine or secondary inspections, detentions or questioning.
Additionally, the Democrats ask CBP to include the percentage of Iranians and Iranian Americans subject to non-routine screenings as compared to the total number of applications for admission into the U.S. at the crossing with Canada for that weekend.