Mohammad Elmi was on his way to fulfill a lifelong dream. On 13 December 2019, the 31-year-old Iranian boarded a flight to Los Angeles to join his wife in the United States and start a PhD program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Sixty-five hours later, he was back in the Iranian capital, Tehran, refused entry to the United States by immigration officers at the airport.
In Iran, Elmi had helped design the country’s first portable electrocardiogram device, which made cardiac monitoring more accessible to rural populations. He was accepted to study biomedical applications of electrical engineering in Santa Barbara, where his wife Shima Mousavi is pursuing a master’s degree, and had received a visa to travel to the US. Preparing for the move, he had left his job and depleted his savings, planning to live off his new teaching and research assistant position.
But when Elmi stepped off the plane after a long, sleepless flight, he was detained by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Over the next 24 hours, he was held in a series of rooms in a restricted section of Los Angeles international airport and was searched and questioned repeatedly by CBP. Mousavi waited near the airport for eight hours before her phone rang. “I’m so sorry,” Elmi told her. “They are sending me back to Iran.”
Last year, the Guardian reported US authorities were increasingly stopping Iranian students from boarding US-bound flights without informing them their visas had been cancelled prior to travel. In recent months, however, a growing number of Iranians with valid student visas have been detained upon arrival at US airports by Customs and Border Protection and deported back to Iran. Some of them have been barred from returning to the United States for years.
Since August, at least 10 students have been sent back to Iran upon their arrival at US airports, the Guardian found, the most recent of whom was deported on 3 January. Seven of those 10 students had flown into Logan international airport in Boston, where some of them allege serious infractions by CBP, including multiple complaints about an individual officer.
According to the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a not-for-profit advocacy organization, the removal of Iranian students upon their arrival “has increased substantially within the past few months” as political tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated. “The number of cases we hear about from other communities does not compare to what’s happening to Iranians,” said Ali Rahnama, PAAIA attorney.
‘They ruined my plans for years’
By the time Iranian students arrive at a US airport, they’ve already gone through a lengthy and intense approval process. Iranians with student visas are exempt from the Trump administration’s travel ban, which bars most Iranians from traveling to the US. While most student visa applications are handled within US embassies, visas for Iranians are vetted by US intelligence agencies in Washington DC and greenlit by the Department of Homeland Security before being issued.
Despite the rigorous vetting process, CBP appeared to question, in most of the deported students’ cases, whether their past or future work might violate US sanctions on Iran’s government, nuclear and energy sectors.
Several deported students said CBP accused them during questioning of concealing connections with the Iranian government they had allegedly established during the two years of military service all men in Iran must complete. Those students said they had fulfilled their military service doing low-level administrative tasks.
Elmi worked in an office that provided housing loans to army personnel. Javad, an incoming University of Pittsburgh student who declined to give his last name out of concern for future visa applications, said he was told by CBP officers at the Boston airport he was being deported because of a sanctions violation relating to his service, even though he had completed his military service filing paperwork in a dentistry office. Another student who declined to be identified said he was deported from Boston after officers found a photo on his phone showing him in military uniform.
Several immigration attorneys said they could not make sense of these deportations. “Why should an eight-month visa process be thrown out over a couple questions at the airport?” Rahnama said. “These students already disclosed all their information and went through months and months of security clearance,” he added.
Elmi said many of the questions CBP asked him at LAX had come up during his visa application process months earlier. “They were the exact same questions,” he said.
“If there was any problem with my career, they should not have issued me a visa,” said Mahla Shahkhajeh, an incoming Iowa State University graduate student, who was refused entry at the Boston airport in late December over her work for a packaging company that sold products to companies associated with Iranian oil production. Shahkhajeh had quit her job after receiving her US visa, moved out of her apartment, turned down other PhD offers and bought a plane ticket to the US that cost four months’ pay. “They ruined my plans for the next five years,” she said.
‘They treated me like a terrorist’
In addition to being questioned, the students say they had their phones, laptops and hard drives searched. Some were asked questions about their religious and political beliefs.
Between rounds of questioning, officers searched the contents of Elmi’s bags and made him unlock his phone and write down the password. Then in another room, they told him to spread his legs and put his hands on the wall. “They started with my legs and worked up,” Elmi said. “They treated me like I was a terrorist.”
Several of the students who were deported from the Boston airport said the screening there was aggressive and in some cases abusive. A student held for questioning at the airport in August while he was en route to Detroit said he was led to a private room with a metal table. “In the room, the officer’s behavior changed. He got aggressive,” said the student, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution in future visa applications. “Tell us the fucking truth!” the student remembers the officer shouting. “I was so scared I was shaking,” the student said. The officer asked him if he was a radical Muslim.
Other students reported that same officer had shouted at them, asking one of them whether he had a girlfriend and if he “likes blondes like other Arabs do”.
One student said he was told by a CBP translator in Logan airport to avoid flying through Boston in the future. “If you get a new visa,” the student recalls the translator saying, “don’t fly through Boston. The rules are stricter here.”
All of the students denied entry in Boston were officially deported and banned from the US for five years.
Multiple students said CBP gave them records of their questioning that were partly inaccurate or fabricated, while others were put on planes back to Iran without a copy of the paperwork. “I don’t know under which section of the law I was not allowed to enter the US,” Shahkhajeh said.
CBP told the Guardian it was not at liberty to discuss an individual’s processing and that it prohibits profiling on the basis of race or religion. “CBP has understood Iran and its proxies to be a very capable adversary for some time,” a CBP spokesperson, Nate Peeters, said in a statement, adding that the agency “is operating with an enhanced security posture”. CBP did not respond to specific questions about the practices at Logan airport.
PAAIA said it plans to file a complaint on behalf of the students with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The advocacy group will ask for an investigation into whether there is a nationwide change in policy causing the deportation of Iranians at ports of entry, or whether certain airports might have issued their own directives regarding the screening of Iranians. “What is happening with Iranian students is incredibly surprising,” said Mahsa Khanbabai, the New England chapter chair for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). “It definitely warrants an investigation.”
Broke, jobless, miles apart
After eight hours at the Los Angeles airport, an officer told Elmi he could go back to Iran voluntarily or roll the dice and let CBP either grant him entry or formally deport him, an outcome that would come with a five-year ban from the US.
Elmi started crying, and told the officer he couldn’t voluntarily withdraw without seeing his wife. Eventually, CBP told Elmi he would be deported unless he chose to leave. He agreed, and was given a $3,750 bill for the flight back to Iran.
Around 9pm, CBP stamped the words “application for admission withdrawn” in his passport and handed him a phone to call his wife. “It was a very short call,” he said. “I wanted to show her that I am strong and this is not a big problem.”
“Will they let you see me?” Mousavi asked.
“No,” Elmi said.
Mousavi searched the airport for help finding her husband, but the CBP office was closed for the night. She wandered through the terminal until daybreak. To console herself, she wrote Elmi a text message, though she knew he would not receive it. “Here in the airport I can feel you close to me.” She was still at the airport at 3pm when Elmi used in-flight wifi to send her a voice message, asking her to forgive him.
Since then, Elmi and Mousavi have been adrift. Their financial losses are compounded by the dramatic fall of the Iranian rial over the past several years, largely a result of US sanctions. Now they’re broke, jobless and thousands of miles apart with no idea when they will be able to see each other. Mousavi does not know where she will find the money to complete her master’s program.
“They destroyed us,” Elmi said.