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Lawmakers say CBP admits breaching protocol targeting Iranian Americans

CNN logo CNN 2/5/2020 By Geneva Sands, CNN
a close up of a person wearing a costume: A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer's patch is seen in 2015 in Miami, Florida. © Joe Raedle/Getty Images A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer's patch is seen in 2015 in Miami, Florida.

Customs and Border Protection admitted to inappropriately targeting Iranian Americans and breaching agency protocol last month when travelers were held at the northern US border, according to lawmakers who met with government officials about the incident.

Last month, reports surfaced that Iranian Americans were detained at the Blaine crossing in Washington state in the wake of the US killing of a top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani. CBP confirmed there were increased wait times but the agency categorically denied there was a directive to stop and question people of Iranian descent.

Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Suzan DelBene, both Washington Democrats, met on Monday with Adele Fasano, CBP's director of field operations in Seattle, who reportedly admitted the agency made mistakes. The agency's Seattle office oversees operations at 67 ports of entry from the Pacific coast to Minnesota/Lake Superior.

CBP did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the meeting or an update on the investigation. The lawmakers did not provide additional details about the content of the meeting with CBP officials, but issued statements reacting to the information they had received.

"For the first time, we were able to hear that there was indeed a breach of protocol and that a large number of Iranian Americans were inappropriately targeted," said Jayapal in a statement.

Last week, CNN published an internal CBP memo that suggests US border officers working at Canadian ports of entry were directed to detain and question travelers of Iranian descent, including American citizens.

Slideshow by Photo Services

The memo said that, among others, 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.

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

For instance, Negah Hekmati said she and her family were stopped at a US-Canada border crossing in Washington state for hours."As soon as they realized that we were born in Iran, they led us to the office and they held us there for five hours," Hekmati, a US citizen, told reporters in a news conference on January 6.

Darian Vaziri, a 21-year-old college student from Los Angeles, had been visiting Seattle when he decided to go to Vancouver for a quick visit. He said he was stopped on the way back into the US.

"They took us into a room," Vaziri told CNN. "We noticed it was only minorities in there. As time went on, we realized it was only Iranians in there."

An unnamed CBP officer also alleged that US border officers working at Canadian crossings had been directed to stop travelers of Iranian descent for questioning following the killing of the Iranian general.

In an email sent to immigration attorney Leonard Saunders, the Washington state CBP officer claimed that the directive was lifted "as soon as it hit the national news."

There are at least two investigations underway regarding the memo and incident last month -- CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility, which is interviewing officers in Blaine as a part of the investigation, as well as the Department of Homeland Security Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Office.

A top official in the CBP Office of Field Operations, Dan Tanciar, said last week, "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."

Up to 200 individuals of Iranian, Lebanese and Palestinian descent were detained by CBP from Jan. 4 to 5, according to DelBene.

"CPB acknowledged that it is unlawful to single people out based on their heritage alone. It is disappointing that CBP officials were not honest about the incidents in Blaine when we first reached out to them with questions," she said.

The lawmakers called on the border security agency to apologize to those impacted and take steps to ensure the breach of protocol doesn't happen again.

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