Iranian student turned back at Boston airport, sparking protest

January 22, 2020 - 22:37

An Iranian student was turned away from Boston’s Logan International Airport on Monday, sparking protests over the latest in a growing number of cases of international students blocked from entering the United States amid heightened tensions with Iran, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Shahab Dehghani, 24, who was planning to study economics at Northeastern University, arrived in Boston on Sunday night with a valid student visa but was held at the airport overnight for questioning and put back on a plane to Iran the next evening.
His flight left minutes after his lawyers obtained a court order directing the immigration authorities to allow Mr. Dehghani to remain in the country for 48 hours while his case was reviewed. But a federal judge declared the issue moot in an emergency hearing on Tuesday morning because Mr. Dehghani had already departed.
Mr. Dehghani is one of at least 13 Iranian students who have been turned away since August at airports across the country despite having valid visas. The cases have sparked outrage among immigrants rights advocates, local organizers, and federal politicians, who say the students are being unfairly treated because of their heritage, and are experiencing devastating personal and professional fallout.

“There’s a lot of reason for concern,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “We’ve seen before periods where people are unfairly subjected to additional scrutiny or denied entry for reasons that have nothing to do with the people themselves but everything to do with generalized suspicion or frankly prejudice against people from particular countries or regions of the world.”
Mr. Dehghani had previously spent two years studying at the University of Massachusetts and at least a semester at Northeastern University. He had returned to Iran in 2018 to spend time with his family, his lawyers said.
In interviews with 10 of the Iranian students who have been removed since August, many said that their visas had taken months to be processed, and that they had spent their entire savings, or taken out loans, to pay for plane tickets, entrance exams, and university applications.
Even after crossing those hurdles, many said, they had been humiliated during the process of being vetted at airports, by being walked around by armed guards. One of the students said he was forced to wear handcuffs and leg cuffs.
Some of the students said they were brought to small, cell-like rooms with threadbare furniture and mattresses, and were not told how long they would have to stay there. They were not allowed to speak to family members or lawyers until they had arrived in other countries for layovers en route to Iran.
One young man named Amin, who asked to be identified by his first name to avoid jeopardizing his chances of being admitted to study in another country, said he was on his way to start a Ph.D. program at the University of Florida on Jan. 1 when he was pulled aside by an officer at the airport in Atlanta. The officer took him to a room for questioning while his suitcase and cellphone were searched by other officers in a separate room.
Amin said the officer asked why he had omitted an expired school email address from his visa application, and why one of his research papers was not listed on his résumé. Amin said he had been unaware of the significance of those details and had not thought to include them.
He was eventually fingerprinted and told he would be sent back to Iran, he said, but first, he spent the night in the airport and a second night in an immigration detention facility about 30 minutes away.
Mr. Dehghani’s detention at the airport in Boston set off a flurry of activity among lawyers, a congressman, and activists in the Iranian-American community, who rushed to aid him when they learned of the issue on Monday.
Susan Church, a lawyer who had handled other cases of Iranian students, said she woke up to a buzzing phone on Monday morning, alerting her that another Iranian student had been detained.
As one of the lawyers who filed a federal lawsuit that upended an initial travel ban President Trump imposed on citizens of Iran and several other countries, she said she had become accustomed to receiving frantic messages day and night about people who are detained at airports and facing imminent deportation.
“People were texting me, ‘There’s a student at the airport! There’s a student at the airport!’” she said.
Ms. Church kicked into gear on Monday afternoon, making hurried phone calls to immigration authorities and other lawyers. She called Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, Democrat of Massachusetts, who joined the effort to halt Mr. Dehghani’s removal.

Ms. Church and another lawyer, Heather Yountz, headed to the Customs and Border Protection office tucked into a corner of the airport, while other lawyers worked swiftly to file a habeas corpus petition in federal court, arguing that Mr. Dehghani was being detained unlawfully.
Members of the Iranian-American community in Boston, including university students and professors, along with immigrant rights advocates and lawyers, gathered to protest at the airport, chanting, “Students’ dreams matter.”

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