U.S. border officers working at multiple Canada-U.S. border crossings were instructed to target and interrogate Iranian-born travellers in early January, said a U.S. border officer in an email obtained by CBC News.
The allegation follows reports that up to 200 people of Iranian descent — many of them Canadian or U.S. citizens — were detained and questioned for hours at the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Wash., during the weekend of Jan. 4.
On Friday, Jan. 3, the U.S. assassinated Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani, intensifying tensions between the two countries.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told CBC News that the "current threat environment" prompted it to implement an "enhanced posture" at the border. However, it denied detaining Iranian-born travellers and said the delays at the Peace Arch crossing were related to staffing issues during a busy holiday weekend.
The U.S. border officer challenges CBP's claims in an email he sent to Blaine-based immigration lawyer, Len Saunders.
Saunders believes the officer reached out to him because the lawyer has been openly critical of how CBP allegedly treated Iranian-born travellers.
Saunders confirmed the U.S. officer's identity and said that he works on the front lines. He asked that CBC News keep the officer's name confidential, because the person fears repercussions from his employer.
To further protect the officer's identity, CBC isn't directly quoting from the page-long email.
In it, the officer told Saunders that CBP's Seattle Field Office — which covers the Canada-U.S. border from Washington State to Minnesota — directed border officers to ask Iranian-born travellers counterterrorism questions.
The officer claimed that the sole reason Iranian travellers were detained and questioned that weekend was due to their ethnicity. He alleged that the operation was unethical and possibly unconstitutional.
In his email, the officer also told Saunders that after the detainment of Iranian-born travellers made national news on Jan. 5, the operation was suspended.
CBP declined to comment on the content of the email without reviewing it first. To protect the officer's identity, CBC declined to send it.
Saunders said he also recently spoke with another U.S. border officer who worked the weekend of Jan. 4 at a Washington State border crossing different from the Peace Arch. Saunders said the officer confirmed the Seattle Field Office had directed frontline staff to target Iranian-born travellers.
"It confirms my suspicion that this was not just happening at Peach Arch," said Saunders. He also said that the officers' claims confirm his beliefs about how Iranian-born travellers were treated at the border.
"They violated American constitutional rights by interrogating them and detaining them," alleges Saunders. "What's next? Where does it stop?"
'This is not OK'
Although there are allegations that travellers with ties to Iran were targeted at multiple U.S. border crossings, Saunders believes the focus has been on the Peace Arch because a big group of Iranian-Americans travelled through that crossing Jan. 4, on their way home from a concert in Vancouver.
"It was because there was a large group that it got attention. That was just by chance," he said. "I'm sure there's a lot more cases we don't know about."
Not all Iranian-born travellers held at the Peace Arch in Blaine were returning home from a concert.
Iranian-born Canadian citizen, Sam Sadr of North Vancouver said he and three relatives were heading to Seattle when they were detained at the crossing for more than eight hours on Jan. 4.
"Why us?" said Sadr who was visiting the U.S. for the first time. He said he counted more than 120 people of Iranian heritage being held for questioning that day.
"As soon as they released me, I told the officer, 'This is called discrimination.'"
Negah Hekmati, an Iranian-born U.S. Citizen, was returning home with her husband and two children after a ski weekend in Canada. She said her family was held for questioning at the Peace Arch crossing for five hours during the early hours of Sunday.
"They had our car keys, they had our passports," she said during a news conference on Jan. 6. "I am here today because of my kids. They shouldn't experience such things. They are U.S. citizens and this is not OK."
To get to the bottom of what happened, 70 U.S. congress members sent a letter to CBP on Jan. 6, demanding answers.
"We are deeply concerned about the experiences of those impacted this past weekend and the potential that this may be the start of a new policy at our borders and airports illegally targeting those of Iranian descent," stated the letter.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is now investigating the matter.
CBP declined to comment on the investigation. "As a matter of policy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not comment on pending litigation," spokesperson Mike Niezgoda said in an email.
Homeland Security didn't respond to CBC's request for comment.