John Ghazvinian is an Iranian-American journalist and historian, and the interim director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. On January 5, two days after the assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Iran, Ghazvinian reported a new level of scrutiny when he landed in New York after a trip abroad.
“Well, just landed at JFK and — no surprise — got taken to the special side room and got asked (among other things) how I feel about the situation with Iran,” he tweeted. “I wanted to be like: my book comes out in September, preorder now on amazon.” His book happens to be titled America and Iran: A Passionate Embrace, from 1720 to the Present.
Ghazvinian’s story is not an isolated case. According to reports, about 60 other Iranians and Iranian-Americans have been stopped at the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Washington and subjected to intense scrutiny in the days following the assassination of Soleimani. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil liberties and advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, authorities confiscated passports of individuals hailing from Iran and questioned them about their political views and allegiances. The nonprofit adds that many more Iranians were refused entry due to lack of detention capacity by Customs and Border Patrol.
In a statement released on January 8, PEN America said that it’s “[D]eeply concerned about the steady increase in the number of journalists and writers who have been subjected to extra scrutiny at U.S. borders in recent years.” It added, “We also worry about government agents monitoring social media and using people’s criticism of the government as grounds to deny entry, an act that smacks of unconstitutional ideological exclusion from the country.”
But PEN America is not stopping at mere condemnations. The organization released a five-point guide to writers, journalists, and others on how to protect their rights while facing increased scrutiny at US border crossings.
The guide presents a number of useful tips for travelers, including information on what federal agents are allowed to do in different jurisdictions. For example, the guide warns that Customs and Border Protection agents are allowed to conduct warrantless searches of devices within 100 miles of the border. Officials may question you about your trip to the United States, but they cannot hold you for an extended time without cause. And if you attempt to video or audio record a federal agent questioning you in Washington, know that the state law requires the consent of all parties.
PEN America’s guide is brought here in full (the organization notes that this information is not to be construed as legal advice):
1) If you are within 100 miles of the border (including coastlines), press freedom and other constitutional principles are severely limited by policies put in place by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). For example, Customs and Border Protection can conduct warrantless searches of devices at the border (or at airports). (See CBP’s Policy authorizing CBP officers to “examine electronic devices” and “review and analyze the information encountered at the border…with or without individualized suspicion.” See also ICE’s 2009 Policy authorizing ICE agents to search electronic devices “with or without individualized suspicion.”
2) For those being questioned by federal agents in Washington state, keep in mind that Washington requires consent of all parties to a video or audio recording. This means you may be violating state law if you attempt to record your interactions with border agents or other government officials without their consent.
3) Government agents may ask about your citizenship and immigration status to determine if you are a U.S. citizen, a green card holder, or have other immigration status. Officials may also ask you questions about your trip to the United States. Agents cannot hold you for an extended time without cause. You can always ask if you are free to go. If they say you are not free to go, you can assume you are under arrest and you have the right to remain silent.
4) If you are stopped, detained, or harassed by Border Patrol agents, try to get their names, their identification numbers, and any other information. This will be helpful later if you want to report the encounter. You should try to document your interaction as quickly as possible so you can report it if you want to do so later.
5) If agents seize your digital device(s) or other personal property, you have the right to demand a property receipt (Customs Form 6051D).
In its report of the detention of Iranian and Iranian-American travelers at the Peace Arch Border Crossing, CAIR brought the story of Crystal, a 24-year-old American citizen and medical student who said she was detained and interrogated with her family for more than 10 hours. “The vast majority of people being held last night were American citizens,” said Crystal. “We kept asking why we were being detained and asked questions that had nothing to do with our reason for traveling and was told ‘I’m sorry this is just the wrong time for you guys.’”
Numerous journalists, writers, and artists have been affected by the Trump administration’s travel ban. Earlier this month, Oscar nominated Syrian director Feras Fayyad reported that he was denied a visa to the United States, which might prevent him from attending the Academy Awards ceremony. In November of 2019, several Iraqi artists participating in the MoMA PS1 exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars, 1991–2011 were similarly denied entry to the States. According to one of the exhibition’s curators, Ruba Katrib, other artists gave up in advance on attending the opening reception, knowing that their visa requests would be denied.