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The deportation of an Iranian student shows the unchecked power of Customs and Border Protection

History shows that on-the-ground officials can make migration policies more restrictive

Protesters stand outside a federal courthouse where a hearing was scheduled for Northeastern University student Shahab Dehghani on Tuesday in Boston. Dehghani arrived this weekend but was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Logan International Airport and then was deported. (Philip Marcelo/AP)
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College campuses have been gearing up for start of the spring 2020 semester. But this week, Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi, an Iranian student with a valid visa to study at Northeastern University in Boston, was stopped by Customs and Border Protection, detained and then deported — despite a federal court order that should have delayed his removal. His attorneys have no idea why CBP decided to revoke his visa or why the agency ignored the court order. Judge Richard Stearns of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts urged federal officials to return Dehghani to Boston, but dispiritingly admitted, “I don’t think they’re going to listen to me.”

Dehghani’s case appears to be part of an emerging pattern. According to the ACLU, since August last year at least 13 Iranian students arriving at U.S. airports have been barred entry and removed, despite having visas. In Dehghani’s case, he underwent a year-long vetting process before receiving his visa, a process that the CBP seems to have blithely dismissed.

Officials at airports, borders and ports have considerable leeway to make decisions about visitors and immigrants. This is not a new phenomenon, unique to either the Trump administration or CBP. Bureaucratic officials have long had the power to shape migration policy on the ground. The career of William Williams, the commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island in the early part of the 20th century, is instructive. He used his considerable power to interpret immigration laws to exclude people he saw as undesirable, but his spitefulness eventually led to censure.

Williams was fond of saying “the law knows no sentiment” and that “favoritism” toward certain immigrants would not be tolerated. Due to such statements, he enjoyed a reputation as a progressive reformer during his two stints in charge of the world’s busiest immigration station from 1902 to 1905 and again from 1909 to 1913, when approximately five million immigrants were processed for entry, rejection or detention.

But Williams was anything but a neutral administrator. He voiced racist theories about the threat that high levels of Eastern and Southern European immigration posed to the United States, and he urged Congress to enact legislation that would more effectively limit their entry. In a 1906 speech in Philadelphia, Williams argued that even “the wildest enthusiast on the subject of unrestricted immigration would hardly claim that the United States could be socially, politically or industrially what it is today had it been peopled exclusively by the races of Russia, Austria, and Southern Italy.” In a 1911 report to Washington, Williams advised organizations that supported the more liberal enforcement of immigration laws to ask whether they would feel the same about “Africans and Hindoos” seeking entry. He implied the danger posed by certain classes of European immigrants was just as grave as this scenario designed to terrify white Americans.

In Ellis Island’s day-to-day administration, Williams’s theories guided enforcement actions. Immigrants whom inspectors flagged as potentially excludable were required to appear before Ellis Island’s Boards of Special Inquiry, where three officials decided whether an immigrant was eligible to enter. At board hearings, impaneled officials were not required to share what they considered evidence or to inform immigrants about why they might be excluded. Immigrants — as is still the case today — were not guaranteed legal counsel.

Williams trained his staff to read race as a factor in determining who was likely to become a “public charge,” dependent on government support, and instructed inspectors under his watch to treat poor British, Irish and German immigrants differently than poor Jewish and Italian immigrants, because he believed members of the former groups — even when indigent — were nonetheless assimilable.

While Williams wasn’t writing policy on Capitol Hill, Prescott Hall, a leading nativist and eugenicist of the era, viewed Williams as a key ally on the ground, trusted to defend the United States’ “cultural” heritage from an onslaught of immigrant newcomers.

In 1909, Williams issued an order stating that all arriving immigrants were required to have $25 — roughly the equivalent of $700 today — to prove that they would not become public charges. Although Williams knew that the immigration statutes did not specify how much money an immigrant needed to have, he hoped that the order, which he claimed was only a guideline, would give the boards of special inquiry a more effective instrument for rejecting immigrants at Ellis Island. Williams figured that in the absence of statutory procedures detailing how the boards were to operate, he could instruct officials to apply rules for admission that would further his restrictionist goals.

For people who had sold all their possessions and landed at Ellis Island poor but ready to work, the new rule was a bitter pill to swallow. While immigrants had the right to appeal a board’s decision to the commissioner general of immigration in Washington, many were not aware of this, and, lacking legal counsel, did not know how to initiate this process. As a student from the Lower East Side wrote to Williams, no doubt thinking about friends and relatives attempting to flee pogroms in Russia: “You kill people without a knife.”

Resistance soon followed. The American Jewish Committee and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations hired Max Kohler and Abram Elkus, well-known lawyers, to bring a test case against Williams’s policy. When it became apparent that the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York was going to admit four Jewish immigrants previously denied entry, on the grounds that officials at Ellis Island had taken the law into their own hands, the immigration service granted the immigrants’ entry rather than face an adverse legal ruling.

In May 1911, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Rules held hearings in Washington after Rep. William Sulzer (D-N.Y.) called for an investigation of Ellis Island and Williams’s practices. Witnesses denounced the boards of special inquiry as “star chambers,” and blamed Williams and his officers for separating families and inventing reasons for exclusion.

When Williams testified before the committee in July 1911, he was unapologetic. Responding to testimony about poor conditions in Ellis Island’s holding cells, Williams argued, “if you have a bunch of dirty immigrants, even in the best room, for half an hour, they will dirty it.” He blamed immigrants for choosing to reside in “foreign colonies” in American cities, which he accused of breeding radicalism, disease and insularity. Lastly, he asserted that if his office separated families, immigrants used this as a sneaky way to establish a foothold in the United States and to bring rejected family members in later.

While the House took no action against Williams, he ultimately had to contend with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and the departure of President William Howard Taft, who had appointed him. Although Wilson’s White House took no steps to remove Williams from office, the new administration directed officers at immigration stations to change their tone and to more generously interpret the public charge provision of the law. Because of bigoted views expressed about Eastern and Southern Europeans in his previous writings, Wilson worked to atone to white ethnic groups — a crucial voting bloc. He vetoed three restrictive immigration bills passed by Congress. With his restrictive powers restrained by his superiors, Williams resigned from his post in 1913.

Those who enforce and interpret the law bring their biases with them and have considerable power to shape the fates of foreign-born people arriving on our shores. Williams wielded the power to restrict the entry of immigrants he believed were undesirable, while he claimed to be a neutral arbiter. Eventually, his punitive policies brought attention, criticism and oversight that convinced him he could no longer carry out his prerogatives.

CBP’s decision to deport Dehghani stems apparently from the Trump administration’s deep-seated biases toward migrants from majority-Muslim countries, which has led to this population being singled out on numerous occasions. The agency’s willingness to blatantly ignore a federal court order staying Dehghani’s deportation should bring attention — and, hopefully, as Williams finally had to face — oversight and public repudiation.