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David Leopold: “Next, they came for the Iranian-Americans”

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After news broke of Iranian-American citizens facing extended questioning and detention while reentering their country, leading immigration attorney David Leopold, Chair of Immigration at Ulmer & Berne and former President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, responded with a thoughtful article for Medium. Leopold underscores the deceptive and wrongful nature of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) action to target and detain American citizens. In his piece, Leopold details the abusive measures and the effort to deny and deceive that Trump and his administration have taken in this instance, as they have done on so many occasions related to immigration, citizenship and border issues.

Below is Leopold’s column entitled “Next, they came for the Iranian-Americans”:

The Trump Administration is simply not telling the truth about detention at the U.S. border of American citizens of Iranian descent. Sadly, we have come to expect nothing less than lies and falsehoods.

Amid rapidly escalating U.S. tensions with Iran are disturbing reports that American citizens of Iranian descent arriving back home in the U.S. are being pulled aside by the Trump Administration’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) agents, ordered to secondary screening and interrogated about their political views and allegiances.

The New York Times reported that dozens of U.S. citizens of Iranian descent were held by CBP — some for as long as 11 hours — and interrogated by agents. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking these reports are.

Predictably Trump’s CBP tweeted a carefully worded denial:

Social media posts that CBP is detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S. because of their country of origin are false. Reports that DHS/CBP has issued a related directive are also false.

Let’s be clear: CBP’s tweet is deceptive. The agency has zero authority to detain a U.S. citizen, (or even deny admission to a green card holder) for the purpose of interrogating them about their political views or allegiances. Once a U.S. citizen returning from abroad establishes their identity and citizenship and addresses any customs related issues — usually by providing the inspecting CBP officer with a U.S. passport and customs declaration form — they have the right to enter the U.S.


U.S. law prohibits CBP from further detaining a U.S. citizen solely to interrogate them about their political views, religion, or allegiances — not to mention their national origin or race. To be sure, U.S. citizens may be detained or arrested at the U.S. port of entry if U.S. authorities have reasonable suspicion that they have committed a crime. But that’s a criminal issue which has nothing to do with whether or not a law abiding U.S. citizen is eligible to enter the U.S.

So CBP’s public assurance that Iranian-Americans were not being detained and refused entry into the U.S. is meaningless since agents don’t have the authority to refuse them entry into the U.S. in the first place.

Glaringly, Trump’s CBP does not deny that it is subjecting U.S. citizens to prolonged interrogation about their allegiances or politics. The administration is likely banking on the fact that most travelers returning from abroad and facing sudden enhanced interrogation by U.S. immigration agents at the border do not know that they have the right to refuse to answer questions about their political views, religion or allegiances and, if they wish, speak to a lawyer. CBP agents are aware that most travelers do not know their rights and they take full advantage of that. Knowing full well that its legally required to allow a U.S. citizen traveler to enter the U.S., CBP appears to be nefariously using the port of entry inspection process to illegally intimidate and harass U.S. citizens of Iranian descent and gather personal information about them — such as their or their family members’ political views — to which the Trump administration is not otherwise legally entitled.

Nor can we take CBP at its word that it’s not detaining nor denying entry to U.S. citizens or green card holders. Remember, this is Trump’s CBP, and it’s ultimately overseen by Stephen Miller, Trump’s white nationalist immigration adviser. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern makes clear, the administration’s pattern of lies and deception is long, ruthless and well documented. When it comes to immigration, the deceptions, cover-ups and lies are woven together by a common thread of unspeakable cruelty ranging from family separation, to child detention, to the denial of refugees’ legal right to apply for asylum.

Why, at long last, would any intelligent person believe the Trump administration would tell the truth about how it’s immigration enforcement agents are treating Americans of Iranian descent when they return home from overseas?

They shouldn’t. Washington Governor Jay Inslee put it bluntly, “CBP’s denial of these reports are simply not credible. These were detentions, and that is unacceptable.” Interrogation and intimidation of U.S. citizens and green card holders returning home is illegal and cannot be tolerated. What’s required is an independent investigation of alleged CBP abuses and meaningful assurances that the Trump administration will respect the rights of all U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning from abroad.