News, Culture and NPR for Central & Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
91.7FM Alpena and WCML-TV Channel 6 Alpena are off the air. Click here to learn more.

Iranian Americans Feel Caught In The Middle Of Latest U.S.-Iran Tensions


The current conflict between the U.S. and Iran is leading to trouble for Iranian Americans. NPR's Joel Rose has our story.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Negah Hekmati and her family usually sail through the border checkpoint between Vancouver and her home near Seattle. That's because they're prescreened and have a trusted traveler card, similar to TSA Precheck, which lets you skip the line at the airport. But their most recent trip, as they returned from skiing and visiting family in Canada, was very different.


NEGAH HEKMATI: As soon as they realized that we were born in Iran, they lead us to the office, and they held us there for five hours.

ROSE: At a press conference yesterday, Hekmati described how her family and friends were stopped and held at the border late Saturday night. They're all U.S. citizens. Immigration authorities took her family's car keys and U.S. passports and questioned them extensively about her social media accounts and her husband's time in the Iranian military. Hekmati says her kids were terrified.


HEKMATI: They were very scared that if they go to sleep, they may take us to the jail and they wake up and see we're not there.

ROSE: Advocates say as many as 200 Iranian Americans were held at a border crossing in Blaine, Wash., over the weekend, some for as long as 12 hours. Many say they had never been stopped for extra screening before - until Iran vowed revenge for the U.S. military strike that killed Major General Qassem Soleimani last week.

Negah Hekmati says her family asked the immigration officers why this was happening.


HEKMATI: We asked them if this is a one-time thing because we pass this border pretty often. They said this is an order that they had. They don't know anything about it. They wished they knew anything.

ROSE: U.S. Customs and Border Protection says there is enhanced security. But in statements to reporters and on Twitter, the agency says there was no directive from headquarters to detain Iranian Americans because of their country of origin. CBP says there were long wait times because of low staffing levels on a holiday weekend. The travelers in Washington were eventually released, and the agency denies that they were quote-unquote, "detained."

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Seattle, says the agency is playing semantics.


PRAMILA JAYAPAL: It was very lengthy screening with no ability to leave. So whether you want to call that detention or something else, the core fact of the matter remains - this seemed to be a directive to pull aside anybody of Iranian American descent.

ROSE: Immigrant advocates say they've received reports of heightened scrutiny of Iranian Americans, albeit on a smaller scale, at airports and border crossings around the country. And some Iranian Americans are so concerned, they're canceling their plans to travel abroad.

JAMAL ABDI: We're here having to decide whether we believe our lying eyes or we believe what is being said on Twitter by this federal agency.

ROSE: Jamal Abdi is the president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C. He points out that Iranian Americans are still living with the Trump administration's travel ban, which does not apply to U.S. citizens or green card holders but does prevent many of their Iranian parents and relatives from visiting.

ABDI: What happened this past weekend kind of retriggered those fears for people who were already, you know, not certain about their status coming into the country, coming and leaving.

ROSE: As for Negah Hekmati, she doesn't know when her family will travel to Canada again. She says her feelings about the U.S., her home for the past seven years, have not changed.


HEKMATI: I'm still proud of being Iranian as well as U.S. citizens. I'm proud of both, but I need to show my kids to be proud of both as well.

ROSE: Hekmati says that's why she decided to speak out.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAODAIL'S "FAIRWEATHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.