‘Demeaned and Humiliated’: What happened to these Iranians at US airports

The New York Times | Caleb Hampton and : Since August, at least 16 Iranian students have been turned away at airports, losing their chances to study at prestigious universities, amid new tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

A small room. A language barrier. An interrogation after hours of travel. Months spent preparing for a new life overseas, all gone in a blur.

A growing number of Iranian students share this collective memory. Many had secured admission to some of the world’s most prestigious universities. The State Department approved them for entry into the United States after a notoriously grueling, monthslong vetting process and issued them visas to come to the United States.

But when the students reached American airports, Customs and Border Protection officers disagreed and sent them home, some with a five-year ban on reapplying to return to the United States.

Most say they were not told why they were deemed “inadmissible” — a broad label that customs officers have wide discretion to apply. What the students do know is that, at a time of rising diplomatic tensions between the United States and Iran, their plans for the future seem to have evaporated.

Some of the students asked that their last names not be published. Their stories could not be verified with C.B.P. officials, who declined to comment on individual cases. In a statement, the agency said there were numerous potential grounds for inadmissibility, include health issues, criminality and security concerns. “In all cases, the applicant bears the burden of proof of admissibility,” the agency said.

Mohammad, 30, was studying at Northeastern University. He was turned away at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Oct. 6.

The officer was friendly, even cajoling at first. Mohammad felt confident. He had been studying at Northeastern University since April of 2019, and had crossed back and forth between Canada and the United States several times.

This particular trip was an academic one. A paper Mohammad had written during his coursework in numerical electromagnetics had been chosen for presentation at a conference in Paris. But when he arrived at Logan airport that day in October, the officer became aggressive, he said. He started yelling.

After Mohammad was told that his visa was going to be revoked, the officers took a picture of him, for their records. Then, he says, they laughed. “I looked as despondent in the photo as I felt and they found it very funny. I felt demeaned and humiliated,” he said.

Flight attendants on the trip back held onto his cellphone and travel documents and refused to give them to him until he reached Paris. When he arrived, he said, he sat in the airport crying for hours, unsure of what to do.

Amin, 34, entering a Ph.D. program at the University of Florida, was turned away Jan. 1 at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta.

Amin in Iran’s Alborz Mountains near Tehran in 2018. He said he goes hiking in the area nearly every weekend.

Amin in Iran’s Alborz Mountains near Tehran in 2018. He said he goes hiking in the area nearly every weekend.

Eight years after graduating at the top of his master’s class from the University of Tehran, Amin hoped to study for a Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering in Florida. But at the airport, officers wanted to know why a former school email address and an old research paper he had written were not disclosed on his visa application.

When they told him he had been deemed inadmissible and would be returned to Iran, he collapsed onto a chair, crying.

A flight back to Iran was not available for a couple of days, so Amin said he was placed in a chilly holding cell for six hours, then transported in cuffs and chains to an immigration detention facility in Georgia. The officers there ordered him to strip naked in front of them.

“The moment I entered the cell, I lost my spirit,” he said. Now back in Iran, he has lost $6,000 — the equivalent of two years’ work — on his travel and applications. The company he worked for has filled his old position. Having moved out of his apartment in Tehran, he is bouncing from one relative’s home to another.

Hamid, 22, entering a combined master’s and Ph.D. program in engineering at University of Notre Dame, was sent back Jan. 11 from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Hamid at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport on Jan. 11 after getting his boarding pass for Chicago.

Hamid at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport on Jan. 11 after getting his boarding pass for Chicago.

Hamid, who had been accepted for a fully-funded graduate program, waited eight months for his visa. Then when he arrived in Chicago, he was placed in a holding cell for 19 hours.

Officers asked him for his opinion on political events in Iran and whether he thought Iran was doing “the right thing.” He was asked what he thought about the Ukrainian jet that had been shot down three days earlier by two Iranian missiles. Hamid told the officer he had a friend who died on the plane.

Hamid said he and two other detained travelers were given foam mattresses and thin blankets, and he hardly slept.

“After 24 hours, I was transferred to the boarding gate in the company of two armed officers, as if I was some kind of terrorist. It was both humiliating and dehumanizing,” he said.

He phoned his parents when he reached Istanbul, en route back to Tehran. “There were so much pain in my parents’ voice,” he said.

Reihana Emami, 35, planned to attend Harvard Divinity School. She was turned away Sept. 18 at Logan airport.

The officers’ questions were simple at first, Reihana said: “Where did you work?” “Who are your relatives?” But then the conversation turned to unfamiliar territory.

“He then asked me what Iranian people think about the explosion in Saudi Arabia,” she said, an apparent reference to the wave of explosions that had rocked Saudi oil facilities a few days earlier, blamed on Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Reihana explained that she had spent the last few days packing and preparing to move her life across the world, and had not been watching the news.

“I said I am not a political person — I’m interested in philosophical questions,” she said.

During the nine hours she was questioned, she said, she asked if she could rest, because she had been traveling for 18 hours. But the officer told her that lots of travelers had done the same, and a Harvard student “should be clever enough to handle” it.

“Now I am jobless,” she said, adding that she and her family were still struggling to believe what happened. “It was like a shock and trauma for everybody.”

Pegah, 28, was preparing to study for a master’s degree in business administration at Southern New Hampshire University. She was returned home on Aug. 1 from Logan airport.

After waiting 15 months for her visa to be issued, Pegah flew from Shiraz, Iran, to Boston. “When I entered the airport the bad treatment started,” she said.

The C.B.P. officer shouted at her for scanning her fingerprints wrong, she said. Another officer took her laptop, hard drive and phone and left her waiting for hours.

Pegah photographed her Qatar airways flight shortly after arriving at Boston Logan International Airport. August 1, 2019.

Pegah photographed her Qatar airways flight shortly after arriving at Boston Logan International Airport. August 1, 2019.

At one point, Pegah asked an officer if she could have a snack.

“He threw a candy at me with terrible manners, like I was a dog,” Pegah said, “He shouted at me, ‘Take it! I told you to take it!’”

Pegah was then taken to a small room. An officer had a series of questions, she said, like which ships Iran hid weapons in, and why Iran had captured a British oil tanker in July.

“He said, ‘Did you know we can catch you and keep you here in the United States, and no one will understand where you are, the same way Iran does to Americans?’”

Pegah said she was frightened. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything. I really don’t. I’m just a student.’”

Mohammad Elmi, 31, was to begin a Ph.D. program at University of California, Santa Barbara. He was denied entry on Dec. 13 at Los Angeles International Airport.

Mohammad Elmi and Shima Mousavi on their wedding day in Tehran in August 2019.

Mohammad Elmi and Shima Mousavi on their wedding day in Tehran in August 2019.Credit…Mohammad Elmi

Mohammad Elmi, 31, and Shima Mousavi, 32, were planning a new life together in the United States. They were married in August, and Mr. Elmi prepared to join his new wife in Santa Barbara, where she is also a student, to study electrical engineering.

Ms. Mousavi was waiting at a relative’s house near the airport when her husband called, eight hours after his plane had landed, to tell her that he had been denied entry.

She rushed to the airport and pleaded for help, but it was late at night and the C.B.P. office was closed. She waited until dawn, unwilling to leave while her husband was there in the same building. “I could feel him close to me,” she said. She was still at the airport when Mr. Elmi was put on a flight back to Iran at around 3 p.m. the next day.

He sent her a WhatsApp voice message from the plane, apologizing. “His voice was sad and tired,” she said.

Arash, 30, accepted into a Ph.D. program in electrical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, was sent back along with his wife, Saba, 30, on Jan. 13 at Logan airport.

When the couple arrived in Boston, C.B.P. officers pulled them aside into separate rooms. Mr. Arash said he was asked about his education and work history, family members and military service. The officers took the couple’s phones and laptops.

They informed Arash and Saba that they had been found inadmissible. Mr. Arash said he thought the officer confused the company he worked for with a company, subject to sanctions, that has a similar name. The embassy had spent months vetting him before granting his visa and had obviously discerned the difference, he said.

But when he tried to point out the mistake, he said, the officer accused him of lying.

Mahla Shahkhajeh, 26, was accepted into a Ph.D. program in industrial engineering at Iowa State University, but was turned away on Dec. 22 at Logan airport.

Mahla Shahkhajeh’s visa to enter the United States, published with her permission, with redactions. 

Ms. Shahkhajeh said she was questioned about her work, family and many other things. The officers said the company she worked for, which produces plastic packing materials, had relationships with companies in Iran’s oil sector. “The officer said his boss didn’t like that I had worked with that company,” Ms. Shahkhajeh said.

She could not understand why one officer’s opinion of her company would take precedence over a monthslong visa process. “If I was eligible to receive a visa after such a time-consuming process, after they had investigated all my information, why was I not allowed to enter the U.S.?”

She had already left her apartment and quit her job in Tehran. “All of my efforts and all the money I spent became nothing.”

Behzad, 32, who planned to study material sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, was turned back Aug. 19 at Logan Airport.

Behzad hoped to work one day in the automotive industry. But when he arrived in Boston to begin his studies, he was pulled aside.

“The room was an exact replica of what you see in Hollywood movies,” he said. “It was very bright and small. I had to sit in a chair, with no table. A guy behind a computer started to interrogate me.” Behzad said he went through multiple rounds of questioning for about eight hours, and had not slept in nearly two days. “I was in too much shock to even ask for water,” he said.

In Iran, Behzad had worked for a company that designs processing systems for factories, including oil facilities. A C.B.P. officer told him he had violated sanctions by working in the oil industry. Behzad protested that his company was never sanctioned, and that he had worked there only while the Iran nuclear deal, under which many sanctions were not in effect, was in place.

It was to no avail — he was ordered back to Iran.

“They just wanted to find something,” Behzad said.

Caitlin Dickerson is a Peabody Award-winning reporter based in New York who covers immigration. She has broken stories on asylum, detention and deportation policy, as well as the treatment of immigrant children in government custody.