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Citizenship

Iranian Americans Report Being Detained at US-Canada Border for 10 Hours

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Iranian Americans have reported incidents of discrimination by border patrol agents at the US-Canada border. Global Goal 16 urges countries to promote non-discriminatory law enforcement. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

Dozens of Iranian Americans have been detained at the US-Canada border following the assassination of the Iranian general Qasim Soleimani by an American drone on Jan. 3, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

US citizens returning to their homes after attending a concert, visiting family and friends, or finishing a business trip in Canada have been detained for hours at a time at the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Washington, and questioned about their ties to Iran, according to the New York Times. A spokesman for the Customs and Borders Patrol (CBP) told the New York Times that Iranian Americans have not been singled out at the border, and no directives have been sent out to personnel on the matter. 

Reports by CAIR and various news organizations suggest a potential civil rights crisis is emerging.

One family was reportedly told by a CBP agent that “this is a bad time to be an Iranian.” Mona Zabihian, a US citizen born in Iran, told Quartz that she was forced to reveal the names of her family members, their locations and occupations, and the last time she visited Iran. 

“Anytime an individual, including American citizens, is kept for 10 to 12 hours and asked invasive questions about their political beliefs and religious beliefs, that is disturbing to us,” Zainab Chaudry, spokeswoman for CAIR, told Global Citizen.

Chaudry said that the profiling of people based on their country of origin, religion, ethnicity, or some other characteristic is unconstitutional. 

“Travelers have the right to be able to pass into the country without being profiled and without having their rights violated,” she said. “Just because somebody happens to Iranian American or Muslim American, or has a certain name, or appears a certain way, or seems to be of a certain religious background, it is not constitutionally sound to deem them suspicious.”

Chaudry said that CAIR is actively monitoring the situation along with other civil rights organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union. 

She added that the US has a long history of unlawfully singling out specific communities for harsh punishment. 

“We did this with the Japanese American community, and we know what that resulted in,” she said, referring to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “Even without any evidence of an individual being a threat, just profiling a person based on their race or religion, it’s a direct violation of their rights.”

“We’re walking a very dangerous line when we enable our government to profile individuals like this,” she said. 

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16 urges countries to always protect the civil rights of their citizens, especially those of minority communities who are at heightened risk of discrimination. 

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Chaudry added that Muslim Americans, in particular, have faced frequent discrimination, harassment, and violence over the past few decades and that this latest episode fits into a larger pattern of abuse.  

“It doesn’t keep anyone safer, it leads to turmoil and erodes the basic tenets of the constitution, which not only allows religious freedom, but also protection from detention and harassment based on a person’s identity,” she said. 

"Iranian Americans already grappling with these developments don't deserve to be scapegoated," she added.

CAIR is now working to ensure that the rights of Iranian Americans are protected in the weeks and months ahead. The organization has released a “Know Your Rights” advisory warning for people in Arabic, Bengali, Bosnian, Farsi, Somali, Urdu, and English that provides information on constitutional rights and how to act if a person feels like they are being discriminated against by law enforcement agents. 

“This blanket scapegoating of an entire community is not acceptable,” she said. “It’s unconstitutional, our government has engaged in this in the past and it hasn’t been effective.” 

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