48 hours of border chaos: Inside a CBP crackdown on Iranian Americans

“Hours after a U.S. military drone killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, one of the most powerful men in Iran, the head of field operations for the border in Washington state gathered her senior staff on an emergency conference call.

It was the first Friday in 2020 — still a holiday for many — and director Adele Fasano spoke from home about the email she’d just received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection headquarters advising “heightened vigilance” following the airstrike.

She instructed assistant directors of field operations and area port directors to institute “heightened security measures.” When the call ended, the Seattle CBP office circulated a “high threat alert” memo among management outlining new criteria for enhanced vetting of cross-border travelers.

The message to rank-and-file agents was clear: Target travelers with ties to Iran, Lebanon and Palestine.

During the next 48 hours, 277 people — dozens of them American citizens or legal permanent residents — would be stopped and held for secondary screenings as they tried to cross into the U.S. from Canada. Many said they were held for more than six hours. Some were denied access to medicine or questioned about their relatives. Most had no idea why they were stopped, though they had their suspicions.

One Iranian American, held for six hours overnight at the Pacific Highway crossing, likened the scene to “a modern-day version of Japanese internment camps.””