Council on American-Islamic Relations-Washington v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, No. 2:20-cv-217 (W.D. Wash., filed Feb. 12, 2020)
The Council on American-Islamic Relations–Washington (CAIR-WA) filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington challenging CBP’s refusal to reveal the directive issued to CBP officers to detain and interrogate Iranian-Americans, among others, who were returning to the United States in early January 2020. CBP has repeatedly denied that they issued any such directive. In light of CBP’s denials, on January 8, 2020, CAIR-WA filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), asking the agency to produce any directives or instructions provided to CBP officers regarding the detention and interrogation of individuals of Iranian heritage, as well as any responses from CBP headquarters regarding the operation. Because CBP failed to respond pursuant to FOIA, CAIR-WA filed a lawsuit in federal district court seeking to ensure that CBP remains accountable for taking such actions.
The complaint alleges that on January 4, 2020, dozens of persons of Iranian heritage, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, returned to the Unites States after visiting British Columbia. But rather than allowing them to return, CBP officers at the Blaine Port of Entry in Blaine, Washington, detained these individuals based on their Iranian heritage for several hours, and in some cases, through most of the night of January 4 and into the morning hours of January 5, 2020. CBP officials repeatedly denied that they were detaining Iranian-Americans and denied that orders had been given to target such individuals for additional questioning. According to a statement issued by CBP’s press secretary on January 5, 2020, “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.”
However, dozens of individuals reported their detention at the Blaine Port of Entry, discrediting CBP’s denials that individuals of Iranian heritage were detained. Most recently, media outlets have also reported the existence a leaked memorandum issued by CBP’s Seattle Field Office, which directed officers at the border to detain and question individuals based solely on their place of birth.
Under FOIA, CBP had twenty days to respond to CAIR’s request. Despite the statutory obligation, CBP neglected to provide a response within the timeline, much less provide a copy of the directive that CBP refused to acknowledge. The initial complaint asked the Court to order CBP to immediately provide all documents and records relating to the detention and interrogation that occurred, targeting persons of Iranian heritage (as well as those from Libya and Palestine).
On April 15, 2020, counsel for CBP provided counsel for CAIR a redacted and incomplete FOIA response. On April 30, 2020, counsel for CAIR was provided a supplemental response to the FOIA request, still far short of the responsive records identified by the agency. On May 1, 2020, CAIR amended the complaint to add claims challenging CBP’s continued delay in producing responsive records, and in July 2020, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.
On October 5, 2020, the court granted summary judgment in favor of CAIR-WA and ordered defendants to conduct an adequate search of the emails of even the highest level CBP officials. Significantly, the Court ordered CBP to include in its search the email of then-Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan. The Court also required CBP to provide to the Court unredacted copies of additional documents that CBP refused to release, in order to determine whether they must also be released to the public. Those documents include the previously-leaked directive ordering the detention of all Iranians entering at the border, regardless of their lawful status. In doing so, the Court observed that the “release of the directive that mandated the detention of individuals based on national origin may be appropriate” given that exemptions to FOIA “should not shield the disclosure [of] records of illegal activity.” Notably, as the Court observed in its decision, CBP has not contested that its actions in ordering the detention of Iranians at the border was unlawful.
On December 14, 2020, after in camera review of responsive documents, the Court issued an order compelling the disclosure of improperly withheld portions of a directive that had unlawfully directed CBP personnel to detain all Iranians at certain U.S. Ports of Entry along the northern border in January 2020.
The newly released emails unequivocally demonstrate that CBP detained United States citizens, lawful permanents residents, and others based solely on their national origin for many hours at the Blaine Port of Entry.
NWIRP Press Release
Counsel: Northwest Immigrant Rights Project
Contact: Matt Adams| Northwest Immigrant Rights Project | firstname.lastname@example.org