Who can forget the frenzied scenes of fear, confusion, and outrage at American airports caused by the Trump administration’s 2017 ban on travelers from predominantly Muslim countries? Regrettably, a similar scene played out last week at Logan Airport. The case of Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi, a 24-year-old Iranian student who was detained, questioned, and then deported by US Customs and Border Protection officers at Logan last week prompted protests against the student’s detention and exposed an agency with unchecked latitude.
For Boston’s universities and businesses, that’s a serious problem. The city has been a magnet for foreign scholars and businesspeople, and if it hopes to remain competitive in attracting top talent, international travelers need to be assured that they’ll be treated fairly.
Dehghani Hossein Abadi had a valid F-1 student visa and arrived at Logan to continue his studies at Northeastern University on Sunday night. CBP officers flagged him for secondary inspection and held him for 24 hours. He was ultimately deported on a flight to Paris on Monday night, despite a federal court order — issued after an emergency petition was filed by the student’s lawyers — granting a 48-hour stay on his removal and scheduling a hearing for Tuesday morning. Dehghani Hossein Abadi’s plane took off roughly 30 minutes after the judge’s order came, which would mean government officials broke the law in defying a federal court. But government lawyers said that CBP didn’t have the court order when Dehghani Hossein Abadi boarded the plane. While in government custody, the student was never allowed to talk to his lawyers.
His lawyers said CBP officials told them he was not admitted because they believed he intended to overstay his student visa, while an unnamed official with the US Department of Homeland Security told WBUR that Dehghani Hossein Abadi’s immediate family members had ties to a company that had done business with Hezbollah. If either of those allegations had any merit, then he shouldn’t have received a visa in the first place. The US State Department vets prospective students before issuing them a visa. Either the State Department is not doing its job reviewing, screening, and running security checks on visa applicants, or the customs agency is being overzealous.
At the Tuesday morning hearing in Boston federal court, Judge Richard Stearns declared Dehghani Hossein Abadi’s case moot and dismissed it. Because the Iranian student was never officially admitted into the country and had already been deported, Stearns said he did not believe he had the authority to compel CBP to let the student return. “I don’t think they’re going to listen to me,” Stearns said.
CommonWealth magazine reported that as many as 10 Iranian students have been deported from Logan airport in the past year under similar circumstances. But there’s no way of knowing exactly how many have not been admitted, or why, because CBP provides little public data. The Trump administration should be more forthcoming: If these Iranian students posed a real threat to our national security, then we should see more evidence — or at least receive some assurance that the process is empirical and not capricious.
On Thursday, Massachusetts congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to CBP acting commissioner Mark Morgan demanding answers on whether heightened scrutiny of Iranian-Americans and Iranian students is occurring on a systemic basis. “CBP has denied the existence of any directive requiring enhanced screening of Iranians or those of Iranian descent, but has provided no further guidance,” they wrote. “Indeed, CBP has failed to respond to multiple congressional inquiries on this matter, including letters from each of us asking CBP to clarify its policies.”
If the Trump administration keeps ignoring members of Congress, maybe it’s time to haul officials in for hearings. There may well be legitimate reasons to keep some visitors out of the United States, but if foreign travelers conclude that those decisions are as arbitrary as they seem, ultimately they’ll start taking their ambitions and dollars somewhere else. For a community and country that has long thrived on the talents of immigrants, the loss could be devastating.
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