For the 2006 SUTA Reunion in Santa Clara, California, US Consulates have cooperated, and to our delight, issued more than 160 visas to participants coming from Iran. But just before the Reunion these visas were canceled without notice. Participants arriving for Reunion were detained at the airport, interrogated, photographed, hand cuffed, and transported in security vans to immigration centers to spend the night with illegal immigrants.
Panel Discussion – Regarding Visa Cancellation – 2006
بحث در باره اعتراض به لغو ویزای شرکت کنندگان در گردهمائی
از چپ: دکتر زاهد شیخ السلام زاده رئیس انجمن سوتا 2004 – 2002 – آقای انوشه حادزاد عضو هیئت مدیره –
دکترفرزان فلاح خزانه دار انجمن – فریدون هژبری عضو هیئت مدیره
We hoped that the US State Department would recognize the injustice done to the deported Reunion participants, and at least compensate them for their financial losses and psychological damages. But the State Department is still in the ‘State of Denial.’ Since we have just passed the anniversary of this shameful event, I thought it is appropriate to document it and give you a concluding review of the case.
1- State Department’s Responses
Please note that the State Department has never responded to the letter that was sent after the Reunion 2006 officially by the President of SUTA.. Only the Director of Public Relations of the State Department responded to my inquiry and gave some answers that did not correspond to the facts. Those responses are shown below in bold letters followed by related explanation.
- The decision to revoke visas was for security concerns:
- In reality the State Department granted visa to the participants after several months of extensive background security checks, Iranians are not citizens of European countries that do not need visas the US Government does not know who is travelling to the United States.
- The decision was based on individual cases:
In reality it was a blank cancellation of all visas issued, independently even of .the country of residence of visa holders.
- United States has no Embassy presence in Iran and was not able to inform the participants:
It is true that US has no Embassy in Iran, the visas were issued by US consulates outside Iran, but consulate had the e-mail addresses and telephone numbers of all participants. The consulates were able to inform the participants of visa cancellations immediately, if they wanted to.
Consulates ignored my letter regarding the rumors of visa cancellations, and my offer to help in informing the participants.
Probably even the consulates were not aware of visa cancellations, as they continued to issue new visas until the very last day before the Reunion.
- The decision to revoke visas was sudden Response to High Security Alert of the Time:
In reality the visas were cancelled almost two weeks before the Reunion, but the decision was kept secret. It is still not clear at what level this decision was made, and why it was kept secret. There is a strong suspicion that whoever made this decision, intended to do the most harm by letting the participants arrive in the US and then find out that their visas have been revoked.
Immediate actions during and after the Reunion
- Bringing Lawyers to SF Airport:
Two layers of NLG (National Lawyers Guild), Stacy Tochin and Nancy Hormachea, came to SF Airport, but they were not allowed to talk to the Reunion participants that were being held at the airport.
- Press Conference in Front of SF Immigration Building:
With the help of the same lawyers and the Supervisor of City of San Francisco, Mr. Ross Mirkarimi, a press conference was arranged on the opening day of the Reunion. It was very effective and created world-wide publicity about what had happened to the Iranians arriving in the US with valid visas.
- Interviews in Media:
At the Reunion a Committee was formed for follow up and to publicize the incident. Several SUTA members gave interviews in Iranian and International media regarding the mistreatment of Reunion participants.
- Sending FOI (Freedom of Information) Inquiries to the Sate Department: NLG lawyers agreed to prepare FOI Inquiries, free of charge, for those participants who have asked the the lawyers to do so. The State Department responded to the inquiries by giving the same responses. The lawyers have appealed these responses, but didn’t produce any results
- Hearings of SF- Human Rights Commission:
It was welcome news that Human Rights Commission of San Francisco took interest in the incident. The first hearing was in September 2006. All reports sent by the participants about their experiences after their arrival in US were distributed to the public. INS and SF- Airport Authorities have responded that they are sorry for what has happened, but they followed their procedures and acted only upon the decision by the State Department to cancel the visas,
The Commission decided to follow up the case and had a second hearing on September 27, 2006.
I attended both hearings.
- Why no Legal Action was taken?
According to the lawyers, the current legal definition for ‘entering’ USA is to pass the INS check point in the airports, therefore, these participants have never ‘legally” entered the United States. As this definition of entering US has been not challenged, the courts will not consider such law actions.
Any legal action must have been taken by the deportees, but all of them have signed the voluntary deportation papers. If they have not signed such forms, INS had to initiate court proceedings in order to be able to deport them. That would have given an opportunity to challenge the decision in court.
The participants were not aware of these details in the law, and in addition, at that time they were tired and eager to leave US and return home as soon as possible.
- Current Status:
Probably due to the publicity that this incident has received and the many follow ups, the concern of many participants that the revoked visa stamps in their passports could prevent them from travelling again to US or to other countries has been alleviated. Many deported participants have applied and received US visas again by providing new invitation letters. Also at their arrivals in the US, immigration officer have not made any comments regarding the revoked visa stamp in their passports.
In one case in which the UK Embassy rejected the visa application- the decision was reversed after we provided explanations and transcripts of our communications with the State Department.
San Francisco – Human Rights Commission Hearing
September 27, 2007
After his opening remarks, Mr. Khldoun Baghdadi, Chair of the Commission, asked Ms. Nazly Mohajer, the chair person of the committee that has been following the case of the deported Reunion participants to SUTA Reunion last year, to report the results of their activity. Ms. Mohajer said:
- “In August and September of last year, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission heard the group’s complaints and was outraged with the treatment of innocent individuals. The Commission began the process to request appropriate steps to be taken to prevent the incarceration of innocent visitors to San Francisco with invalid visas or where valid visas have been revoked.
Commission found that the mistreatment was mainly because San Francisco international airport didn’t have a facility to keep inadmissible visitors overnight and they had to be sent to INS Detention Center outside San Francisco.
Both United States Customs & Boarder Protection and the Airport Commission responded promptly and cooperatively to the issue by agreeing to designate an area within the Airport as a holding facility for visitors to San Francisco whose visas have been revoked or canceled and are deemed inadmissible. Even though San Francisco Airport is not a 24 hour airport, with the cooperation of the Customs and Border Protection, and the Airport Commission, the required securities were put in place to use the facility for 24 hours operation.
Since its opening last month, it has already housed over 100 individuals overnight. it is a historic achievement for the Commission and for the City of San Francisco that was possible only due to the suffering of the detained Reunion participants to SUTA gathering and the public outrage that this incident caused.”
Before public gave comments, the entire letter of Mr. Shahin Mehrabian was read, it was about what happened to him and his wife after they arrived in San Francisco Airport. It was a well-written and very moving report.
When I was asked to give my testimony,. I thanked the commission for their efforts and said that having a lounge at the airport is a big step in right direction, but looking to the whole picture, the incident we know that it didn’t happen because of lack of facilities at the airports to keep people overnight. It is more a question of policy and attitude of immigration officers, because even the whole treatment at airports was hostile. They could keep the deportees in a hotel under supervision until their departure and not sending them to INS detention centers, if they wanted.
In spite of this, I am pleased that the sufferings of our members had helped the City of San Francisco to arrange for this lounge at the airport to prevent similar mistreatment of visitors to your City in future, and thank the Commission and Ms. Mohajer for showing interest in our case.
|Our arrival to San Francisco Airport – Aug 2nd|
|Date:||8/6/2006 2:49:12 A.M.|
:Dear Dr. Hojabri :
Hope all has gone extremely well during the reunion event in Hyatt Regency hotel which is still on going as we speak
You all know by now that quite a few participants for the reunion holding Iranian passports were sent back home from different airports in US. We arrived to San Francisco airport on Wednesday August 2nd at around 13:00 midday. At the passport control counter, we were asked to go to the immigration office (Secondary office) at the back of the passport control desks area. Not expecting any problems and knowing that we would be stopped to answer some questions as a typical procedure for Iranians first visitors to US, we took it a normal procedure and head for that section.
But what happened to us for the next 24 hours is something we will never be able to put words for it and explain the feeling that we had due to what went on with us there. We happened to meet other participants who flew to SFO in the same flight from Amsterdam.
At the beginning we were asked questions like why we are here, what we do as our jobs and how easy or difficult we were granted the visa to come to US and from which consulate etc etc. As the time passed the questions were more intense, insulting and lead to our suitcases and bags being searched piece by piece and paper by paper. They went through every single piece of our belongings and documents and questioned about every paper they found in our bags and made a copy of all of them not even missing one! They even went through my camera’s pictures and contact numbers that I had saved in my cell phone probably trying to find something that they could accuse us of, which they didn’t.
What hurt the most was their attitude and behavior towards us. It was obviously felt that they are investigating bunch of criminals and no matter what you answer them, they just simply don’t believe it and ask the same questions over and over in a sense that what you just said is a crap and you need to tell me again because I don’t believe you!!!!!
Then it went to few times of taking our pictures and fingerprints and making us to sign on different filled up forms and questionnaires which all that went on and on till midnight! (for about 12 hours). As a result each one of us had a thick binder of file in record with all the documents which we have no idea what impact the whole thing will have on our future applications to go to US either for higher education or further visits.
When we were told that we are going to spend the night in jail till the next morning. Sadaf and Aida simply because of their age were sent to a juvenile place where we had no idea where that would be in and what the place’s name was. Tough tough hours and minutes that we can’t describe them properly. When it came to 3 of us adults to go to jail, we were body searched thoroughly and hand cuffed and taken to the jails transportation car with 2 officers escorting us out. We figured out the place was a house of detention in Santa Clara county. So you see that we made it to Santa Clara but were not allowed to check in to our fancy hotel!!! We spent the night of tears and fear in a smelly, dirty and filthy cell where except for 3 of us the rest of the people were arrested driving drunk, homeless etc. We could not get through the line to give a call to the hotel just to let one person know where we were and what’s going on to us. Wee hours in the morning, we were told by an officer that we are going to be sent to women’s jail and after that to the court to find out what the immigration office will decide about our case. Do you believe this Dr. Hojabri?????!!!!!!! We kept asking what it is that we’ve done wrong in this country. We came with valid visas and we ended up in jail for having done nothing wrong! Is this the country of democracy????
We can’t explain what went on to us that night. When the court thing was brought up we called an attorney from the cell and asked him what to do and wanted him to call a relative of us and let him know where the hell we were!!! Later in the morning we were sent back to the airport and were told that we would be out of the country with the first flight. That indeed was a big comfort and relief that we are finally out of the jail.
We are not intending to make a long story here but we think you and the board need to know what went on with us upon our arrival on Aug 2nd. We’ve seen all the emails from other people and also have seen the news web pages where there were articles about the issue but all has been reported from Thursday 3rd of August onwards that appears our case was not passed on and reported which so far it’s been the cruelest case among the others.
We were checked in to the KLM flight without our presence, our bags were tagged and sent to the plane at the last moment and we were escorted to the plane with 2 officers without having our passports in hand and we got them when the flight took off.
Please forward this email to the board of directors and please do add this story into your records if you want to follow up a case for the whole number of people from Iran that was detained upon arrival. We think a serious action needs to be taken as it was really an insulting behavior we faced. It’ll take us the rest of our life to forget the insults that we saw in one day only. We were truly humiliated for having done nothing wrong except accepting SUTA’s invitation to take part in such a great event of Sharif University. I think all the participants that were deported and detained at US airports, need your follow up and support simply because the financial, time waste, planning and emotional damages to us have been extremely massive.
After all, we both were looking forward to seeing you and participating in the reunion which unfortunately didn’t happen. Please let us know what we will need to do and follow up from our end that looks necessary to you.
With Warmest regards,