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Iranian-American family speaks out about hours spent stuck at Canadian border

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
Negah Hekmati at a news conference in Rep. Pramila Jayapal's office on January 6, 2020.

Negah Hekmati and her husband and two children were on their way home to Kirkland, Washington, after a ski trip to British Columbia Saturday night. They arrived at the U.S.-Canada border at Blaine around midnight. Although they had no idea at the time, they would be there for five hours.

Hekmati and her family are United States citizens. She said they have a lot of family in Canada, where they used to live, and often travel there using a government issued NEXUS pass, which expedites border crossings.

But, on Saturday, they were told to pull into a parking place and go into a waiting or holding area.

"As soon as they realized we were born in Iran, they led us into the office," she said. She said the area was filled with other Iranian-Americans. She said a white family came in, but they were released very quickly.

She said the officers wanted to know her Facebook accounts and asked her "many, many questions" about her parents, her uncles, her cousins and her husband’s military service in Iran, which she pointed out is mandatory there.

Her kids, she said, were frightened and too anxious to sleep. She said they were worried their parents would be sent to jail. She said her 8-year-old daughter even told her not to use her native language.

“My daughter said ‘don’t speak Farsi and maybe they won’t know that we’re Iranian,’” Hekmati said.

She said that hurt, she wants her children to be proud of their ancestry and has made sure they are fluent in Farsi.

Hekmati says she’s speaking out because she believes what happened is wrong and goes against the U.S. promise of freedom.

Immigrant rights advocates say dozens of Americans with Iranian heritage were held for up to eight hours at the Blaine border crossing with Canada over the weekend. U.S. Customs and Border Protection denies anyone was detained and says they were busy and understaffed.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington held a news conference in Seattle, with Hekmati and immigrant rights activists, to call attention to what happened to Iranian-Americans at the border over the weekend. She said most of the families she talked to were too afraid to go public with their story. She praised Hekmati for her courage.