Two young British men of Iranian origin were deported from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on November 3 after being questioned by authorities, IranWire has learned.
The two men follow the Baha’i faith, Iran’s largest religious minority. They were singled out for intense questioning upon arrival at the airport, and after one of their replies met with the disapproval from US authorities, were told they would not be allowed to enter the country.
The US is home to tens of thousands of Baha’is, with most of them living in metropolitan areas. Iranian Baha’is have been immigrating to the US for decades, especially following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and in the 1990s, when Islamic authorities stepped up their persecution of Baha’is, introducing anti-Baha’i policies and barring them from higher education.
The two men, who have not been named and are both under the age of 25, are British citizens. They were traveling to the US to visit their family and were in possession of a valid ESTA — an Electronic System for Travel Authorization document. Iran is one of eight countries to feature on the Trump administration’s travel restriction list.
As their US-based families planned to host the men during their stay, they had little money on them when they arrived at the airport. When authorities pressed them on the matter, they replied that they could help out with chores in a restaurant owned by their relatives during their stay, a response that led to accusations that they were intending to work while in the US, which is not allowed under the terms of their ESTAs.
Leila Mansouri, a lawyer and advocate for the Iranian-American community who divides her time between Washington DC and London, learned of the ordeal too late.
“They reached out to me and I acted immediately,” she told IranWire in a phone conversation from London. “I contacted the head of the CAIR [Council of American-Islamic Relations], they contacted the port director of the JFK airport but it was too late: they had already been sent back.”
Albert Fox Cahn, the legal director of CAIR’s New York branch, who is well known for his Muslim-Jewish interfaith work, personally intervened to help but not in time to prevent their deportation.
Mansouri, who is also a board member of the Iranian American Bar Association, has worked on many similar cases in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions on people from several Muslim-majority countries. She says she wishes the family had been in contact before the trip so that she could have helped the two young men prepare for the intense questioning they would likely face.
“They can ask you personal questions, they can want to see your return ticket or what you do for a living, if you are married, everything,” Mansouri says.
She also urged travelers to not carry unnecessary legal documents that could be misinterpreted. Students have been deported before because they carried business card offering paid services.
Another disturbing deportation story occurred in August 2017. A British student who was living in Los Angeles, where he rented a house, had a car and had already finished two years of university, returned home to Britain to visit his father for two weeks. His entry documents were dated incorrectly, an error unknowingly introduced by university administrators responsible for the form. He did not catch the mistake before flying and was deported upon arrival in Boston after being detained for almost three days. The US embassy has denied his request for a waiver, so he will now miss an entire year of school, and maybe longer.
Sometimes pressure and legal work from advocacy groups can help turn cases around. This was the case for an Iranian family who had been barred from boarding a US-bound plane in Istanbul in October. The family had won the Green Card lottery — which is officially known as the Electronic Diversity Visa Lottery and came under harsh attack by Trump after it emerged that Sayfullo Saipov, the man responsible for the deadly attacks on October 31 in New York, traveled to the United States from Uzbekistan as part of the program. Learning that they had successfully secured permission to settle in the US, the family sold all their belongings in Iran and were heading for Los Angeles where they, like many Iranians, have relatives. They were taken off a Turkish Airlines flight on the orders of Homeland Security, even though the US embassy in Armenia had issued their visa the month before. Mansouri, who was contacted by a young man in the family, acted quickly. She contacted California Senator Kamala Harris, who helped make it possible for visas to be re-issued. The family is now residing in the US.
The recent deportation story clearly demonstrates that people traveling to the US must be more vigilant and prepared than ever. With heavy security measures in place and increased anxiety over terrorist threats, anyone traveling to the US should be aware of the types of questions they will likely face, and the documents they will be required to produce. In the current climate, presenting a passport from a "US-friendly" country like the UK does not guarantee entry.
Leila Mansouri can be reached at [email protected]