From Massachusetts to Michigan, reports are on the rise of authorities detaining and deporting Iranian students at US airports.
Approximately ten days ago, a 24-year-old Northeastern University student was escorted onto a plane in Boston as protesters at the airport pushed for his release, while, last Monday, a 27-year-old engineer who'd planned to get a doctorate at Michigan State University was deported from Detroit Metro Airport.
For American universities hoping to convince the world's top students to study in their classrooms, it's causing concern. For the students, it's devastating. For immigrant rights advocates, it's a troubling pattern emerging as tensions run high between the US and Iran.
US Customs and Border Protection says its inspections take additional factors into account and can uncover details that didn't come up in previous visa screenings. There's no guarantee, the agency adds, that someone with a visa will be allowed to enter the United States.
But advocacy organizations, rights groups, and immigration lawyers state that the situation they've seen unfolding recently is far from business as usual.
Even though the overall number of cases is still relatively small, CBP hasn't released statistics on how many Iranian students the agency has denied entry and removed from the country in recent months, and the agency has announced it can't reveal details about individual cases due to privacy restrictions.
At least 17 Iranian students have been deported from the US since August, Ali Rahnama, legislative counsel for the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, who's spoken with most of them as he tries to get a handle on what's happening, claimed.
Advocates say many students in the recent wave of cases were deported from Boston's Logan International Airport — at least 11 of them, by one attorney's count.
Executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said the trend is clear, but the reasons behind it remain a mystery, adding, "We don't know whether this is a decision by the Boston CBP office, or whether this is a decision coming from the administration of [President Donald] Trump, because it's all being done in secret."
Holding signs read, "Protect Iranian Students" and "Stop Discrimination Against Iranians", protesters packed the airport's arrivals lounge days ago, as they'd heard a Northeastern University undergraduate had been held for questioning after arriving at Logan and was on the verge of being deported. They cheered when they learned a federal judge had issued an order temporarily blocking any efforts to remove him. But, the next day, the case surged into the national spotlight, as Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein had been deported despite the judge's order.
Dehghani's attorneys had argued in court that his visa was revoked because of additional scrutiny targeting Iranians.
"We don't know what happened with that or why that happened," Kerry Doyle, an attorney representing Dehghani, said, adding, "That's very troubling if CBP believes that they don't have to listen to the federal court."
CBP officials have claimed that they didn't know about the order when they put the 24-year-old on a flight to Qatar's Doha.
A Department of Homeland Security official told CNN there's more to the story. The official noted that CBP officials have claimed that Dehghani was denied entry into the US in part because his father had an affiliation with a US-sanctioned transportation company that allegedly provided weapons to Hezbollah on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), after in early April, the United States designated the IRGC a foreign "terrorist organization", marking the first time Washington has formally labelled another country's military a "terrorist group".
Asked about the allegation, Doyle said she thinks it's "highly unlikely" something like that would have been overlooked by other agencies as the State Department investigated Dehghani for more than a year before issuing his student visa earlier this month.
She accused officials of leaking allegations to avoid facing any review or criticism of their actions.
"What's going on with CBP? To me that is the ultimate question," Doyle noted, adding, "They can't escape answering questions on their actual behavior and culpability here. It's part of a pattern that needs to be answered to."
Terry Hartle, Senior Vice President of the American Council on Education, which represents about 1,800 colleges and universities, sees the situation as part of an even larger trend.
"The number of international students, after increasing steadily for a decade, has leveled off in the United States," he said, adding, "We think the reason is because America is simply seen as less welcoming than it used to be to international visitors."
According to the latest government statistics, there are more than 1 million international students in the United States, and more than 12,000 of them are Iranian.
At Northeastern University, where two of the Iranian students deported in the past six months were enrolled, school leaders have been trying to send a message of support to international students on campus.
It's not only Iranians who've been affected. Some students from other countries have also been turned back in recent months, Hartle stated, such as a group of Chinese students who were heading to Arizona State University in September.
"We're worried about the environment for international students," Hartle said.
Schools, Hartle noted, struggle to advise students as the situation shifts.
US-China relations have worsened during Trump's presidency over several issues, including Iran's Nuclear Deal which Washington, in May 2018, announced its withdrawal from, trade realation, and Uighur Muslims.
During interviews with CNN, several deported students and their attorneys detailed their experiences at US airports, describing what they said were hours of questioning that left them feeling exhausted and confused.
Tensions around Iran have been rising since Trump torpedoed the landmark 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sweeping sanctions targeting large swathes of Iran’s economy. Later, Washington raised the stakes in the standoff, sending additional military assets – including a carrier strike group, a bomber task force, and Patriot missiles – to countries bordering Iran. The conflict between Washington and Tehran hit record highs after an intruding American spy drone was shot down by the IRGC in Iranian sky.
The latest conflict which concerned several leaders in the Middle East and whole the world came in early January, when the US assassinated Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Qods Force Commander Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. The Pentagon's operation brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war, with Tehran retaliating by launching missiles at military bases in Iraq housing American troops, wounding more than 60 American military servicemen and warning of further strikes against the Unted States. Iranian officials have branded the assassination an “act of international terrorism”.