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Customs chief says agents erred in detaining Iranian Americans at US-Canada border

Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan speaks during a Press Briefing in James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Nov. 14, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA/TNS)

The Customs and Border Protection agency’s top official, in a rare admission of misconduct, said Tuesday that agents should not have detained Iranian Americans at the U.S.-Canada border last month.

Mark Morgan, the agency’s acting commissioner, acknowledged that agents behaved in a way “that was not in line with our direction” when they held dozens of U.S. citizens of Iranian heritage, and others with ties to Iran, for questioning at a border crossing in Washington state. His comments were the agency’s first public admission of the incidents.

Customs and Border Protection officials had repeatedly denied that Iranian Americans had been singled out as they tried to return to the United States, despite numerous accounts by people who said they were held over the Jan. 4-5 weekend at an entry point in Blaine, Wash. The detentions occurred just after Qassem Soleimani, a high-ranking Iranian military general, was killed in a U.S. strike in Baghdad on Jan. 2.

As recently as Friday, an agency spokesman denied an interview request on the matter from the Los Angeles Times, saying there was an “ongoing investigation.”

But Morgan, who briefed reporters in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday on southern border crossing statistics, said that officials in Blaine got carried away. “I would say in that one instance leadership got a little overzealous, and we corrected that right away,” he said.

But Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said Tuesday that Morgan’s statement was “not a sufficient response,” in light of a leaked memo that appeared to have been issued by CBP’s Seattle office, instructing border agents to subject travelers with links to certain Middle Eastern countries to increased security.

“It’s deeply disturbing that it took my inquiries, a leaked memo and press reports for CBP to finally acknowledge that it inappropriately targeted Iranian Americans at the Washington state-Canada border,” Jayapal said in a statement released by her office. “We have heard reports of at least one other field office that acted on similar procedures, in addition to the Blaine, Wash., point of entry.”

Jayapal met Feb. 3 with Adele Fasano, CBP Seattle field operations director, and said afterward that Fasan said there had been a breach of protocol, and that a large number of Iranian Americans were inappropriately targeted. On Friday, Jason Givens, an agency spokesman in Seattle, declined a request from The Seattle Times to interview Fasano.

Jayapal held a news conference Jan. 6, introducing Negah Hekmati, a 38-year-old U.S. citizen born in Iran, who said that she and her husband and their two small children, also all Americans of Iranian descent, had been subjected to intensive questioning during a five-hour overnight ordeal during the previous weekend. Givens said at the time that reports of such detentions were false, and blamed delays on short staffing and other factors.


© 2020 The Seattle Times

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