February 12, 2020

At least 200 travelers of Iranian descent were detained at the U.S.-Canada border in January, after the U.S. ordered a drone strike that killed one of the country’s top generals, prompting retaliation with an attack on a U.S. military base. Now, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says border officers “got a little overzealous” in their approach.

Over Jan. 5-6, up to 200 Iranian and Iranian-American people coming to Washington state from Canada were detained for as long as 12 hours, the Associated Press reports. The Washington branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-WA) said on Jan. 5 that it assisted more than 60 Iranians and Iranian-Americans who reported being detained and questioned while crossing the border in Blain, Wash.

People who were detained said their passports were confiscated and that they were questioned about their political views and allegiances, according to CAIR-WA. Several of the travelers were American citizens. “We kept asking why we were being detained and asked questions that had nothing to do with our reason for traveling and [were] told ‘I’m sorry this is just the wrong time for you guys,'” a 24-year-old woman identified only by her first name, Crystal, told CAIR-WA.

At the time, the CBP denied that it had detained Iranian-Americans, and said there were no orders to refuse their entry into the U.S. “because of their country of origin.” But a directive from the CBP’s Seattle field office, sent following the drone strike on Qassem Soleimani, ordered border agents to “conduct vetting” on Iranian, Lebanese and Palestinian nationals born between 1961 and 2001, and screen anyone who had traveled to Iran or Lebanon, the AP reports, citing a copy of the directive obtained on Jan. 29 by an immigration attorney.

Border officers can require travelers coming into the U.S. to go through a “secondary inspection,” or additional security screening if an agent feels that is necessary — according to the New York Times, it appears border agents in the Washington area referred travelers for further inspection based on those guidelines. Immigration lawyers have argued “secondary inspection” is a form of detention; lawmakers expressed alarm at the CBP holding so many people of Iranian descent in a letter to the Trump Administration, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state.

On Tuesday, CBP acting commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters that border officials in the Washington region began additional security screening for people from Iran after a U.S.-led drone strike killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani on Jan. 3. Morgan said the CBP typically does not target people on the basis of their nationality and that the agency had not issued a broad directive for officers to target Iranian and Iranian-Americans.

“In that one instance, leadership just got a little overzealous, and we corrected that right away,” he said.

Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com.

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