Hamid Mohabbat did not dream of living in the United States. He was scared to leave his parents and friends in Iran early last year for life in an American college town.
“But this program was beyond what I imagined,” he said.
After four years of all-nighters spent poring over engineering textbooks, Mohabbat, 23, was accepted into a fully-funded doctoral program at the University of Notre Dame. This was an opportunity worthy of homesickness. Mohabbat’s heart soared as he imagined returning to Tehran with a PhD.
He did not imagine a night inside of a Customs and Border Protection detention facility, the first step in a deportation process that has prevented hundreds of Iranian students from attending college in the United States.
“It was cold, it was really cold,” Mohabbat said of his night in the detention facility. “There were a couple of rubber couches, but it just felt like a prison cell in a movie, where you don’t know how long you’ll be kept there, or what’s going on outside.”
Mohabbat never stepped foot outside of Chicago O’Hare Airport after arriving, student visa in hand, to make the trip to Notre Dame.
Border Protection officers immediately detained him and, within 24 hours, deported him using a powerful tool called expedited removal, or ER. An ER order allows border officers to fast-track the deportation of newly arrived immigrants on the grounds that they’re either dangerous or a threat to stay permanently. Officers don’t even need a court order. They unilaterally decide when and why to issue an ER order.
“CBP basically acts as judge, jury, and executioner in expedited removal cases,” said Trina Realmuto, executive director of the National Immigration Litigation Alliance, an immigrant advocacy organization.
Mohabbat’s fate — he’s banned from even attempting to enter the United States again for at least five years — has become increasingly common for Iranian students arriving here to attend colleges. Though expedited removals and voluntary visa withdrawals remain a small portion of deportations, the number of Iranians turned away at the border soared more than 150 percent from 2015 to 2019, from 736 to 1,895, as the Trump administration applied pressure on the Iranian government. This increase happened even as student and exchange visitors from Iran dropped 43 percent.
Boston’s Logan Airport, gateway to many colleges and universities that attract international students, has become a hotbed for legal battles. Iranian students say their futures were derailed by customs officers wielding the largely unchecked power of expedited removal.
One student, who has asked to only be identified by her first name, Reihana, said she was questioned for eight hours before being turned away from attending Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 2019. Around that time, Behzad Rezaei was removed from Logan while en route to Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Pegah Karimi was removed after she flew in to Logan to attend Southern New Hampshire University.
College officials have objected to the use of expedited removal, noting that students arriving at the airport have already been accepted by the school and vetted by the State Department, which issues student visas.
Southern New Hampshire University officials slammed expedited removal in a statement that also called for the incoming Biden administration to review the practice:
“The lack of transparency into the process, the absence of an appeal procedure, and the substitution of the prior vetting conducted by the State Department prior to issuing a visa with the judgment of an officer at the border are issues of concern for all colleges hosting international students, including SNHU.”
Harvard University referred questions to its Immigration Clinic, which is helping represent Reihana. Clinic attorney Jason Corral said agents are misusing immigration law to create a pretext for deporting people.
“I believe they are using a loophole, in a poorly written statute, to discriminate and remove people that they do not like for whatever reason,” he said.
Corral believes the actions may have a chilling effect on admissions, especially during the pandemic.
“I have heard numerous international students question whether it is worth the risk to apply to schools in the United States, knowing the possibility that they could come under intense scrutiny once they arrive and risk a five-year bar to their ability to enter,” Corral said.
CBP officials say that expedited removal is used rarely, but can be an important tool for border officers when a new arrival is suspected of repeatedly overstaying a temporary visa, or when their paperwork raises suspicions about their reason for coming to the United States. Officials say they do not target any particular nationality.
“CBP is committed to the fair, impartial and respectful treatment of all members of the traveling public, and has memorialized its commitment to nondiscrimination in existing policies,” an agency statement reads.
Yet, the growth in use of expedited removal and visa withdrawals against Iranian nationals has been faster than almost any other group. People from South American countries such as Peru and Venezuela, which have long had frosty relations with the United States, also faced increasingly high removal rates.
Linda Brown, the Boston area port director for the customs agency, said her officers understand the importance of judiciously applying expedited removals.
“We understand that when we expeditiously remove somebody, it’s not just that they’re going home and next week they apply for another visa,” Brown said. “They’re going home, and for five years, they’re not going to be able to get a visa.”
Brown explained that agency officials make the process of getting an order deliberately complicated. It has to be approved by at least three different officers, two of whom are supervisors, often including her.
Brown also said that, before a newly arrived traveler is subjected to expedited removal, he or she often gets the option of leaving voluntarily. That way, the traveler can avoid the five-year ban.
But Mohabbat said he was not offered voluntary removal. None of the four Iranian students interviewed for this article remembers an officer offering them a choice between voluntarily leaving the country and expedited removal.
In the months leading up to his January 2020 flight, Mohabbat’s parents warned him that other Iranian students had tried to go to the United States and were turned away at the airport. So Mohabbat had come prepared with all of his immigration paperwork.
“I was just 22 years old, and I had all my documents,” he said. “I did everything right.”
But, when he arrived at O’Hare, a federal officer pulled him out of the passport check line. After almost six hours of waiting rooms and questions about past internships and his personal thoughts about Iran-US relations, a different officer told the then-22-year-old he was about to be sent back to Iran. Mohabbat said he was told to sign a document confirming the agency’s decision.
“I was in shock,” Mohabbat said. “When I tried to read it, they said something like, there’s no point, there’s nothing you can do, just sign the papers.”
Mohabbat’s documents show he was denied entry because officers thought he wanted to immigrate to the United States, beyond what his temporary student visa allows. He’s not sure why: He already told an American consular officer about his plans to return to Tehran after he completed his degree. And the officer who interviewed him had hardly asked about his postgrad plans.
“I told him I wanted to go back, but that whole interview just focused on what I thought of what Iran is doing in the region,” Mohabbat said.
Confused and exhausted, Mohabbat followed an officer down the hall of the CBP office into the holding cell, where he would spend one terrified night. Just after midnight, an officer offered to bring Mohabbat some dinner.
“I threw the whole thing up on the second bite,” Mohabbat said. “I guess I was just too nervous, and still in shock.”
Border Protection officials declined to comment on Mohabbat’s case, saying they could not comment because of privacy reasons.
It’s unclear how the CBP policy fits into the agenda of the Biden administration, though the president-elect has pledged to reverse some of Trump’s hard-line immigration policies and to take a more diplomatic approach toward Iran. Biden spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment.
“We hope that when a new administration takes over there will be guidance that instructs CBP officers on how to properly use expedited removal,” said Susan Church, a Boston immigration attorney. “Are there still going to be rogue officers doing it? Sure, but hopefully there won’t be an entire operation dedicated to harass immigrants, who are here just to study.”
Church has also helped represent Reihana, the Iranian student at Harvard Divinity School. Last fall, she came to Logan. Like Mohabbat, Reihana was pulled out of the passport check line and questioned by CBP officers.
After eight hours of repeating that she didn’t know anybody in the United States, and yes, she had come here to study, the officer sent her back to Iran without explaining why. Once she was able to decode the legal jargon on her removal order, she was shocked to learn that the officer had suspected her of wanting to permanently immigrate to the United States.
Reihana is still bewildered by CBP’s assessment.
“Harvard is the only school in the US I applied to,” Reihana said. “Had I intended to come to the US and stay for a long time, why would I have only applied to a highly competitive program that I have a very slim chance of being accepted into?”
One year after she was deported, Harvard’s virtual semester means Reihana has been able to start online classes. It’s been a strange silver lining of the pandemic, finally becoming a student at her dream school. Still, Reihana said she never lets herself think about the future for too long. The end of the pandemic might mean the end of her studies.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue my program,” Reihana said. “Everything is so in limbo.”