border security

When the ‘Americanness’ of Iranian-Americans Is Conditional

Cars wait in line at the port of entry in Blaine, Washington, at the U.S.-Canada border.
Cars wait in line at the port of entry in Blaine, Washington, at the U.S.-Canada border. Photo: Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Over the weekend, reports surfaced that dozens of Iranian-Americans were being forced to undergo secondary inspections at the port of entry in Blaine, Washington, at the U.S.-Canada border. According to multiple travelers affected, several immigration lawyers whose clients were stopped, and the Council on American-Islamic relations, Customs and Border Protection agents were subjecting these travelers to extra screening at the behest of the Department of Homeland Security, which had issued a security bulletin warning CBP to take extra security measures after the killing of Qasem Soleimani, a high-ranking Iranian military commander, by an American drone strike on Friday. Agents were allegedly pulling people aside on the basis of their Iranian heritage, asking where they lived, what they did for work, whether they’d served in the military, and questions about their families. Reports from advocates and lawyers about the total number of people screened differ, but all range from 40 to 75. According to BuzzFeed News, Blaine-based immigration attorney Leonard Saunders saw a nearly block-long line of them waiting to be inspected; the wait was so substantial, he said, that CBP officers had begun passing out juice boxes, prepackaged fruit, and crackers to quell their hunger.

There’s something especially disquieting about this detail — using snacks to soften the blow of the travelers’ helplessness in the face of a security apparatus that had total power to keep them from their homes and families. They weren’t going anywhere until CBP told them they could, they knew, and it was because they’d been born in, or descended from people born in, a country that an erratic U.S. president had decided on a whim to provoke via missile strike under thin pretenses.

While early reports indicated that their detention stemmed from a top-down mandate, CBP officials emailed congressional staff on Monday and said there’d been no directive “from DHS or CBP leadership with instructions to detain Iranian-Americans and [refuse] their entry into the U.S because of their country of origin,” according to CNN. The email explained further that field agents have broad discretion to pull aside and inspect whom they please — and to respond to DHS security bulletins calling for increased “situational awareness,” as was issued last week, by “[enhancing] operational posture based upon the totality of circumstances, including [area-]specific information.” (Read: detaining people because they’re from a specific country.)

The takeaway is that Blaine CBP agents were simply being proactive in following the lead of the administration in their approach to following orders. They were told to be on high alert following Trump’s attack on an Iranian military official — and the Iranian government’s vow to retaliate — and responded of their own volition by applying broad suspicion and targeted security enforcement to people of Iranian descent, including American citizens and permanent residents. This imprecision was not irrational. Quite the contrary, it followed, closely, what any reasonable person might conclude is Trump’s own border-security mandate, which entails using extremely large categories to define threats and enemies. Entire nations and religions aren’t exempt. Trump sought to ban travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries in 2017, a more sweeping effort than President Reagan’s conditional ban on Cuban travelers in 1986. No president who decries all Muslim immigrants or those from so-called “shithole countries” can be surmised to have an aversion to treating all people of Iranian heritage like potential terrorists while toying with war against Iran.

DHS’ Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is reviewing a complaint about Blaine CBP’s security procedures filed by the National Iranian-American Council, according to CNN; it’s unclear how long or wide-ranging their investigation will be. But it can be said with a fair degree of certainty that the agents vetting travelers of Iranian descent didn’t go rogue or even substantively diverge from what, under Trump’s government, has become the standard approach to border security. Among the defining features of the president and his party’s default aversion — and often hostility — toward people who aren’t white, native-born Americans is that it doesn’t require a rigorous rationale. Bigotry rarely does. In this particular case, it’s a logical extension of a seemingly boundless War on Terror that over the past two decades has generated spiking violence against American Muslims — and those mistakenly perceived to be Muslim, like Sikhs — and broad suspicion against Muslim communities and travelers, such that Muslims are surveilled, added to watch- and no-fly lists, and outright banned from entry to the U.S. in staggering numbers, while white supremacists shoot up synagogues and win national elections.

It is, to an extent, a reflection of the degree to which the Trump era has openly valorized the bigoted application of security policies that Blaine CBP agents could profile so flagrantly with little apparent fear of consequences. “You know in Israel they profile,” Trump said in September 2016, deriding what he saw, laughably, as a reticence among American police to single out racial or religious minorities for suspicion. “They’ve done an unbelievable job — as good as you can do … And they’ll profile.” This fundamentally vague approach seems to be a feature of Trump’s military strategy as well. Several members of Congress have emerged from briefings about the Soleimani strike with serious doubts that the president’s rationale for the killing — that it prevented an “imminent” attack on Americans — was even close to being true.

But it speaks as well to the fundamental pathologies in how too many Americans view Americanness: as conditional, determined by a litmus test that encompasses a narrow range of bona fides, such as whiteness, being native born, and adhering to a jingoistic understanding of patriotism. It’s a remarkably short trip between waving one’s Iranian-American countrymen through an immigration checkpoint with little fanfare on Friday to singling them out for special interrogation and multi-hour security lines on Saturday. Even if none of these travelers were ultimately denied entry to the U.S., that their undue vetting was viewed by its perpetrators as reasonably precautionary — as a way to reassure themselves that they were being sufficiently thorough in protecting the homeland — illustrates, if nothing else, the emotional catharsis that such a sweeping and rigor-less approach to national security generates. Bigotry can be comforting, an affirmation of what’s seen as the natural order. And the precipice of wartime is an especially edifying time to be reminded whose Americanness can be taken for granted and whose must be proven under duress.

When the ‘Americanness’ of Iranian-Americans Is Conditional