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Customs and Border Protection goes rogue

The case of a Northeastern student from Iran is just the latest to highlight the lawless behavior of the federal agency.

Cassidy Taylor offers support for deported Iranian student Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi while protesting outside the federal courthouse in Boston on Tuesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

On Monday, a nightmare scenario played out again. Customs and Border Protection deported an Iranian student with a valid visa. As with the Muslim ban in January 2017, a panicked community summoned immigration lawyers to help. Our phones buzzed incessantly. Protesters packed the airport, and lawyers started drafting emergency briefs.

In 2017, it was numerous and faceless Muslims. On Monday, it was Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi, who was returning to Northeastern University from Iran. He had received his visa after an extensive background check, and expected things to go smoothly when he arrived in Boston. What he didn’t know was that in the last 10 months, Iranians have faced increased profiling and aggressive tactics by CBP, especially in Boston. Attorneys at the airport pressed CBP for information while others drafted an emergency petition, filing with the court minutes before the plane’s first scheduled departure. A federal judge issued an emergency stay at 9:27 p.m., but Shahab was flown out of the United States at 10 p.m.


Usually, a federal court can intervene if immigrants are mistreated by the government, but laws restricting jurisdiction over the border have made this case particularly challenging. CBP believes the border is a “Constitution-free zone” for everyone — US citizens included. Despite this legal hurdle, Shahab’s case raised enough questions about his mistreatment at Logan that a federal judge ordered that his removal be stayed for 48 hours. He was deported anyway. Despite removing him, CBP told us (his lawyers) that we would see our client “soon.” That was untrue.

Did CBP know about the judge’s order? We believe they did. The federal court has emergency habeas procedures in place, including e-mail notification of petitions filed and any orders a judge enters, including a stay of removal, as was issued here. Shahab’s flight left 30 minutes after the order was issued.


Empowered by the overly broad “expedited removal” authority that allows a single customs officer to deport anyone without court review, CBP shattered Shahab’s dreams of completing his US degree.

This is, of course, bigger than one person. We are seeing a pattern by an already empowered rogue federal agency targeting Iranians for deportation. Another Iranian, arriving in Boston to attend Harvard Divinity School, met the same fate in September. Yet another student told reporters that CBP “treated me like a terrorist.” Another said, “I lost all my dreams [and future] in a few hours.” According to The Guardian, 10 Iranian students have been deported since August, including seven who had flown into Boston.

Defying a federal judge is a serious breach, foreshadowing a potential constitutional crisis. And CBP has done this before. During the 2017 travel ban, CBP issued “no board” orders to passengers despite a federal order opening the Boston airport to travelers affected by the travel ban.

Rule of law depends on the judiciary’s ability to issue a decision and to expect it be honored by the other branches of government. As immigration lawyers, we meet people from countries where the rule of law does not exist. None of us wants to live in such a country.

CBP needs oversight and reform, and it must face consequences for its misbehavior. Congress should demand an explanation of CBP’s ongoing misconduct through both congressional hearings and oversight letters. Without that, the lawless behavior of CBP will remain unchecked. Leaving such an affront to our Constitution unexamined will embolden increased lawlessness in the future.


Susan Church, Kerry Doyle, and Heather Yountz are attorneys representing Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi.