We planned to drive home after a party on Saturday evening in Vancouver. Earlier that evening, a friend had called to warn us that his wife, who was born in Iran, and their children had been detained and questioned at the border that afternoon. He thought that this must be related to the American military strike that killed the Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani. We told ourselves we shouldn’t have any problems. Everyone in our group was an American citizen; we were even enrolled in NEXUS, a border prescreening program for frequent travelers.
Around midnight, as we approached the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine, Wash., our friends in the car ahead of us were instructed to pull over. We saw them get out of their vehicle and follow the Customs and Border Protection officers into a nearby building. When my husband and I pulled up to the booth, our children sleeping in the back seat, the officer asked us when we had left the United States. Then he asked where we were born. We, too, were pulled aside, our car keys and passports confiscated.
When we entered the building, we saw around 50 or 60 people already sitting on benches and the floor. All of them were Iranian. Some had been there for 10 hours. When it was our turn to be called up, the officers asked us endless questions: Where were you born? Where did you go to high school? To college? Did your father serve in the military? Are you on Facebook, Instagram? What are your account names? Do any other family members live in the United States? What are their names? Afterward, we went back to the sitting area for another four hours, waiting to be told what to do.
This was the first time my husband and I had faced a problem like this. Around us, everyone was so calm that it disturbed me. They didn’t seem frightened or bewildered; they seemed resigned. They asked the officers for pen and paper to play word games and settled in for a long night. The whole time I was there, I didn’t see anyone complain or even ask why this was happening. When they got their passports back, they thanked the officers pleasantly. I thought to myself, Why are you thanking them? Why should any of us thank them for this unfair treatment?
Eventually, the officials called our names, returned our documents and told us we could go. We finally made it home two hours later, exhausted and shaken. Later, we learned that the U.S. government denied treating us differently because of our ties to Iran, claiming that the delay was because of high traffic, not enough staff and “the current threat environment.” That’s when I knew I had to speak up.
The experience terrified my children. That night, as we walked through the chilly parking lot, they were bursting with questions we couldn’t answer. My daughter told me, urgently, not to speak Farsi. If I didn’t speak Farsi, she said, they wouldn’t know that we were from Iran, and we wouldn’t get into trouble. The officers’ uniforms scared her and her brother — they thought that we were being taken to a detention center or to jail — and the line of questioning confused them. As someone who has immigrated from Iran to Canada, and then from Canada to the United States, I’m used to a certain amount of scrutiny (though never anything this arbitrary and unexpected). But I never imagined that my American children would have to experience it. I never expected them to have to worry about where their family is from, to be anything but proud of their heritage. They didn’t sleep at all that night, fearful that if they did, they might wake up and find us gone.
I grew up in Iran during the war with Iraq. Years after the conflict ended, its traumas restricted our sense of the future. My husband and I left our home country for more opportunities and personal freedom; we were drawn to the United States because it seemed like a place where freedom was prized. We’d been told that it was truly a melting pot compared with Canada, where various communities tended to keep to themselves. When I moved to Seattle in 2014, I was delighted to meet people from all kinds of places — South Africa, Lebanon, Colombia, Venezuela — to befriend them, and learn about their lives. When I took the oath of citizenship in March 2016, I was so proud. I have voted in every election since.
My husband and I became Americans during the Obama administration, a more hopeful and positive time. The following winter, Donald Trump got elected, and almost immediately announced a travel ban on people from Iran and four other mostly Muslim countries. Ever since then, my father’s green card application has been on hold, and he’s had difficulty getting visas to enter the country to visit, including when my brother passed away last year. Throughout my time living in America, no American had ever discriminated against me because of my ethnicity or religion. Even the Border Protection officers treated us as nicely as they could. But American policies are a different story.
After what happened to us last weekend, our friends and neighbors have shown amazing kindness, leaving flowers and even wine and cheese on our doorstep. They wanted to make sure that we felt free, safe and at home. I fear that I can’t say the same about our government.
As told to Washington Post editor Sophia Nguyen.