Chicago — “I was arrested back home in Iran in 2009 because I was working for the BBC. It felt the same this time,” observed BBC World Service journalist Ali Hamedani, after being detained at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport thanks to the ban on refugees and clamp down on immigration.
Allow a moment to consider the irony of such a comparison — particularly in the context of the executive order’s stated purpose of combating terrorism imported from despotic nations.
At an American airport, Hamedani — a BBC journalist and British citizen — endured over two hours of interrogation by U.S. border agents because, at one time, he hailed from Iran. But Hamedani no longer even possesses an Iranian passport due to his employment with the BBC since 2009.
Agents requested Hamedani hand over his cell phone — commandeering it in a manner leaving it unlocked and searchable.
When phone was siezed it took me a few mins to remember here is the US and no one can question me about my viewes. He was reading my tweets.
— Ali Hamedani (@BBCHamedani) January 29, 2017
“They took away my phone and started searching my Twitter account. So, they were looking to find out about my political views, whether I’m ‘supporting’ anybody — any kind of extremist view or not,” he told Stephen Nolan in an interview for BBC Radio’s 5 live. “I was also asked questions like if I had been training with the military in Iran … When was the last time I’d been home in Iran.”
Hamedani had traveled from London’s Heathrow Airport on his way to Los Angeles when border agents detained him for his Iranian roots. But considering the journalist hasn’t even possessed an Iranian passport — nor has he been allowed to enter the country — in eight years, the encounter evinces astonishing scrutiny with which Trump’s ban is being enforced.
Indeed, Hamedani indicated the agents were entirely unreasonable, putting suspicions before evidence — making the lengthy detainment more inquisition-style harassment than simple questioning.
Returning to Iran wouldn’t be an option, he explained to interrogators, because of the fact he works for the BBC — a media agency the Iranian government does not find favorable — would see him arrested by authorities.
“But still, I couldn’t convince the guy,” Hamedani said of a border agent, “because he kept questioning me about an Iranian passport; why I’m holding a British passport; why didn’t I enter the country with an Iranian passport.”
Nothing the journalist told the interrogators satisfied suspicions he somehow still held strong ties to Iran — one of seven predominantly Muslim nations targeted by the temporary halt on immigration.
Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen also made Trump’s list of verboten countries — none of which have had civilian or government connections to any terror attacks on U.S. soil.
Nonetheless, citizens of the blacklisted nations already en route to the United States to immigrate legally suddenly found themselves in a new refugee status — some, unable to stay, faced possible arrest or death upon returning to their nation of origin.
In particular, the absurdity fell hard on Iraqi, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, who was detained in New York’s Kennedy Airport at the nascent stages of the ban.
Darweesh signed up to work as an interpreter for the U.S. military in 2003 upon the invasion of Iraq, and later worked as a contract engineer — literally putting his life on the line on both the battlefield and in the betrayal of his nation’s government.
Returning to Iraq after receiving official permission to enter the U.S. would be an act of suicide.
Darweesh’s case garnered the international spotlight and attention from the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an emergency intervention order to allow his release. That order allowed a temporary stay from several federal judges in a smattering of similar incidents, permitting those with valid visas or green cards who had already set foot on U.S. soil to remain in the country.
Hameed stopped Trump. He also once dragged wounded troops to safety. How much does this guy have to do for America before we get it together pic.twitter.com/gCoQGNMBwg
— Brandon Friedman (@BFriedmanDC) January 29, 2017
“This is the soul of America,” Darweesh told a waiting crowd of protesters upon his release from custody. “This is what pushed me to leave my country and come here.”
But the scrutiny Hamedani, Darweesh, and others were subjected to suggest an authoritarian, letter-of-the-law interpretation of the refugee ban — portending an ominous future of the nation once cherished as the world’s melting pot.
Hamedani explained it seemed the agents “were basically cross-checking what I told them when I applied for an ‘I’ visa last year, because I saw the guy was holding my visa application form” they’d printed, asking the same questions as if to ensure he hadn’t lied.
Asked by Nolan whether the interaction was intimidating, the journalist replied,
“It wasn’t pleasant at all. To be honest with you, I was arrested back home in Iran in 2009, because I was working for the BBC — and I felt the same this time, when they took away my phone and laptop, and the guy was trying to keep my phone unlocked. And it was like, ‘So, are they going to search what I’m writing? Do they care about it? Why are they doing it?’”
Perhaps it isn’t only those who hail from blacklisted nations who should be concerned with Trump’s flurry of sweeping executive actions — will journalists specifically now be targeted, too?
Hamedani noted the agent stated it wasn’t the journalism career that was the focus of questions — but his own story hints otherwise.
A single bright moment for Hamedani happened upon his release, when a group of about 50 people — who had followed the journalist’s tweets narrating the detainment — welcomed him upon release. Many of these Americans — some of Afghan and Iranian descent — were waiting for immigrants and passengers at the airport while figuring out the implications of Trump’s travel restrictions.
“They hugged me and they welcomed me,” Hamedani said. And these foreign-born U.S. citizens reassured him,
“This is not the real America. We are the real American people.”