As she sat in an otherwise empty interrogation room face-to-face with a U.S. border agent, Shirin Fahimi found herself in a scenario she’d only ever seen in the movies.
A long table separated her from the officer. On the ceiling were four monitors. Her heart was beating fast.
“Are you Muslim?” Fahimi recalled the agent asking her.
“That was a shocking question for me,” she told CBC News. “I don’t know if any other Canadian at the border is being asked this question of what do you believe.”
Fahimi, a 31-year-old Toronto-area artist, was born in Iran. Over the years, she said she’s faced extra questioning in exchange for the freedom to travel the United States.
But on Feb. 4, shortly after she checked in at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, Fahimi was led to a room where she said she was peppered one-on-one with questions she never imagined she would face as a Canadian citizen.
What was her position on the Iranian government, why did she move to Canada and why was her husband’s name so long were some of the questions.
‘Who is Canadian now?’
The interrogation lasted about 45 minutes and ended with Fahimi in tears. Not only was she denied travel to San Francisco for a scheduled performance, she was also left questioning if the Canadian citizenship she’d waited so long for was somehow worth less because of where she was born.
“Who is Canadian now?” Fahimi said. “You question your belonging.”
Fahimi isn’t alone. CBC News has interviewed five other Iranian-born Canadian citizens who were denied entry even after U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) admitted that officers at its Seattle field office were wrongly detaining Iranian-born travellers amid escalating U.S.-Iran tensions following the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3.
Two of those people said they had served in the Iranian military before moving to Canada — which is mandatory in Iran.
The cases have some wondering if the refusals are part of a broader strategy targeting Iranian-born travellers.
During the Jan. 4 weekend, up to 200 travellers of Iranian descent travelling from British Columbia were reportedly detained and questioned for several hours at the Peace Arch border crossing in Washington state.
The targeting was said to have ended after Jan. 5, as stories of Iranian-born travellers who had been stopped at the border began coming to light, according to a U.S. border officer, whose identity CBC News withheld over concerns of repercussions from his employer.
On Jan. 31, Saman Zamanzadeh, 35, was heading to Orlando, Fla., for an engineering conference. A Canadian citizen since July 2018, he’d travelled to the U.S. numerous times without issue.
This time, at secondary screening, he was asked about a time — before he became a Canadian — when his application for a visitor’s visa was denied. That was around the time of U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban that barred individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
At the time, Zamanzadeh cancelled his trip, deciding it could wait. His entry woes ended when he became a Canadian citizen — only to return again in recent weeks.
It was the same for Ahmad Keshavarzian.
The 59-year-old construction consultant and his wife were planning to travel to Orlando to see their daughter when he was stopped at Pearson airport. Keshavarzian, who became a Canadian citizen in 2017, had faced secondary screening before, but had always been able to cross the border after answering a few questions.
This time, after 20 minutes of interrogation, Keshavarzian was deemed inadmissible, and told he did not have the necessary visa to cross the border. Canadian citizens generally don’t require visas to travel to the U.S. except in very specific cases, according to the U.S. Embassy’s website.
‘No policy’ to detain based on nationality: CBP
The two Iranian-born Canadian citizens who had served in the Iranian military told CBC News they had never before undergone secondary screening until the killing of Soleimani. One was held up at a land crossing at the Champlain–St. Bernard de Lacolle crossing connecting Quebec and New York on Jan. 17; the other at Pearson airport on Jan. 20.
In an emailed statement this week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection told CBC News “there is no policy or rule that would permit CBP to target or detain individuals based on nationality alone.”
CBP officers “are trained to enforce U.S. laws uniformly and fairly, and they do not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation,” spokesperson Jason Givens said in the statement.
The statement went on to say individuals who present a valid Canadian passport will be processed for entry to the U.S. as Canadian citizens but to demonstrate that they are admissible, it’s up to the applicant to “overcome all grounds of inadmissibility.”
When Fahimi was denied entry, she asked the border agent why she was suddenly inadmissible despite having travelled to the U.S. so many times previously.
“Well, they made a mistake before,” she recalled the agent saying. “How could the border agency make a mistake that many times?”
Canadian government’s silence ‘disturbing’
For Zamanzadeh, the only recourse he sees is for the Canadian government to step in and make sure its citizens aren’t being discriminated against.
“I’m not a citizen of the U.S., and I can’t demand anything from their government, but I am a Canadian citizen who voted for this Liberal Party in this election, and one big reason is what was brought up by Prime Minister Trudeau: ‘A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,'” Zamanzadeh said.
“This means a lot to us,” he said.
CBC News contacted both Global Affairs Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency this week to ask if the federal government is aware of and concerned about cases of Iranian-born Canadians being interrogated or refused entry at the border. CBC News also asked if any action is being taken to ensure Canadians of Iranian origin are not subjected to any unequal treatment.
Neither federal agency offered a response, referring any questions to the U.S.
For Len Saunders, an immigration lawyer in Blaine, Wash., the silence from the Canadian government is “disturbing.”
“They’re so willing to give the Americans this carte blanche autonomy on Canadian soil,” Saunders said. “They’ve allowed U.S. officers to … basically interrogate Canadians indefinitely at pre-flight clearances, to recommend charges if Canadians don’t co-operate with U.S. officers.”
“Why not make the Americans accountable for cases like this?”
Since tensions between the U.S. and Iran have ramped up, Saunders said he’s received dozens of calls from Iranian-born Canadians who have been given no way to resolve their cases.
“They’re told to go to the U.S. consulate to apply for a visa. And the second they go to the consulate, the consulate says you’re Canadian, you don’t need a visa. And so it becomes kind of a catch-22.”
“It’s profiling,” Saunders said.
“These people have not violated any immigration laws. These people have not had any criminal convictions or anything which stands out as grounds of inadmissibility. The only common factor — and I hate to say this — most of them are born in Iran.”
For now, Fahimi isn’t sure if she will ever be able travel to the U.S. using her Canadian passport.
As she stared out of the train window on her way back home from Pearson, the skyline whizzing past, she thought: “After everything my parents went through for us to have this freedom, this happens.”
“Do I belong here?”