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Criticism intensifies over detention, rejection of Iranian Northeastern student

Mohammad Shahab Dehghani
Mohammad Shahab DehghaniHandout

As criticism intensified over the barring of an Iranian student bound for Northeastern University, an immigration official said the decision stemmed from concerns about the student’s anti-American ideology and his family’s connections to a US-designated terrorist group.

Customs and Border Protection officials put Shahab Dehghani on an Air France flight to Paris Monday night, despite a federal judge’s order to put things on hold and keep him in place for 48 hours. The student’s removal sparked accusations the agency is singling out Iranians who are trying to enter the country and defying judicial authority.

Susan Church, a lawyer for Dehghani, said customs officials were falsely accusing Deghani to defend their decision to deny him entry.

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“They’re lying to you guys about what happened and trying to distract from their own bad behavior,” she said.

The 24-year-old, whose full name is Mohammed Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi, held a valid student visa to study at Northeastern University and had undergone an extensive yearlong review to obtain it, his lawyers said. Any ties to terrorism would presumably have been discovered then, she said.

The government has provided little explanation for barring Dehghani, other than expressing a general concern that he intended to overstay his visa, Dehghani’s lawyers said.

His removal has renewed criticism of the Trump administration’s border policies. On Thursday, Massachusetts Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley decried Customs’ “apparent refusal to comply with an emergency federal court order.”

In a four-page letter to the agency’s acting commissioner, they accused customs officials of zeroing in on Iranian students at airports, pulling them aside, and putting them through prolonged questioning. They denounced the actions as “shameful, irresponsible, and completely unacceptable.”

Northeastern officials, meanwhile, said they had not received “a satisfactory explanation from Customs and Border Protection for this action.”

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“We believe that a clear explanation is needed, especially because the deportation took place after a 48-hour extension was granted by a federal judge,” the university said. “Only in the most extreme instances should students have their academic pursuits interrupted by government intervention.”

But an immigration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to discuss the case, said the student had troubling ties to terrorism.

It was believed that Dehghani’s immediate family was linked to a transport company that had been sanctioned by the United States for allegedly supporting Hezbollah, the official said. Dehghani also has connections to Islamic Pulse, a group known for its social media presence and anti-American rhetoric, the official said.

Islamic Pulse describes itself as a scholarly enterprise devoted to the “pure message” of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and based in the Holy City of Qom.

The group has active accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and Dehghani was the administrator of at least one of them, the official told the Globe.

Church called the allegations “absolutely false.”

Dehghani’s removal was unlike the circumstances of a Palestinian Harvard University freshman who had trouble getting into the United States in late August. Ismail Ajjawi, 17, of Lebanon, was deemed inadmissible but was allowed to voluntarily withdraw his application to enter the country. He successfully returned about 10 days later, in time to start fall classes.

In Dehghani’s case, customs officials revoked his visa, instigated his immediate and expedited removal, and placed a five-year ban on his return, the immigration official said.

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On Monday, while Dehghani was still at Logan International Airport, lawyers filed an emergency petition in federal court to block his removal.

US District Judge Allison D. Burroughs ordered a 48-hour halt on his removal and scheduled a hearing for the next morning. But the next morning, a different judge oversaw the hearing. Judge Richard Stearns dismissed the case once he learned that Deghani had left Logan to return to Iran.

Dehghani’s lawyer asked Stearns to compel the government to return Dehghani. But Stearns said he had no jurisdiction to do so because Dehghani had not cleared customs and had not been admitted into the country.

“I do not think I have the authority to do that,” he said of Customs and Border Protection.

Immigration specialists said Stearns recognized the limits of his authority. “If you’re physically inside the country, such as at an airport . . . that is considered not in the United States,” said Ragini Shah, a clinical professor at Suffolk University Law School. “Until you clear customs, when the border patrol agent stamps your passport, that’s the defining moment.”

What the law is not clear on is whether a judge can order an agency to overturn an initial decision not to admit a person, she said. But Stearns could have held the government in contempt for violating Burroughs’ order, she said. “It sounds like he didn’t feel comfortable issuing a contempt on somebody else’s order,” she said.

On Thursday, Stearns issued a written decision. “I remain of the view that I have no authority to order DHS (Homeland Security) to locate the petitioner and arrange for his return to the United States,” he wrote.

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The case would remain open and any further litigation related to Burroughs’ emergency order would be heard by her, he wrote. That allows Dehghani’s lawyers to seek sanctions.


Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com.