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Iranian-Canadians feel like ’2nd-class citizens’ as many continue to be stopped while travelling to the U.S.

'Am I not Canadian enough?' says man turned away at border

Canadian and American flags fly in front of the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Windsor, Ontario to Detroit, Michigan.

CBC News interviewed several Iranian-born Canadian citizens who were denied entry to the United States due to having been conscripted into the Iranian military as young men.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Rob Gurdebeke

RCI

Amir Abolhassani sold his house in Saskatoon when his U.S.-based employer asked him to relocate to North Carolina. But at the Calgary airport this January, his family was not allowed to cross the border. 

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer told Abolhassani, who is a Canadian citizen, that it was because of time he spent as a conscript in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) more than a decade ago. The family was subjected to a secondary screening involving a long interview and an extensive search of their belongings, cellphones and social media.

It's like we are not Canadians and our lives, our suffering is not important to anyone, Abolhassani said.

Am I not Canadian enough? The stress to be linked to a terrorist organization is the worst thing.

Amir Abolhassani says he wants Canada to clear his and other former conscripts' names. (Submitted by Amir Abolhassani)

Amir Abolhassani says he wants Canada to clear his and other former conscripts' names.

Photo: (Submitted by Amir Abolhassani)

The Trump administration labelled the IRGC as a terrorist organization in 2019. Abolhassani said all men in Iran above the age of 18 have to do mandatory service with one of the arms of the military. 

One in every three Iranians will be assigned to IRGC because it is one of the biggest branches of the military.

Abolhassani said refusing conscription would prevent a man from getting a passport or accessing civic amenities, and can sometimes lead to further punishment.

I know around 500 cases, almost 150 are Iranian-Canadians and others are Iranians that are facing the same situation.

CBC News spoke with 15 Iranian-Canadians, all of them Canadian citizens, who continue to be stopped and detained while crossing into other countries due to their names being flagged as people who have helped a terrorist organization. All say they feel they are treated as second-class citizens.

The officer said my wife can't go to the U.S. either because she may have received military training from me. It's disastrous, Abolhassani said. In two months of training, I held a weapon for three days. I have just fired four bullets in my life. A typical American teenager may have fired more.

'We're not real Canadians yet'

Worried about losing his job, the 41-year-old applied for a visa to the U.S., but he is worried because he knows some people have been waiting for U.S. visas since 2019.

We're not real Canadians yet. Once you are flagged at the U.S. border, your name enters a list that when you are travelling to or from Canada and any other ally of the U.S., you will be flagged, he said.

Maryam Ghasemi, a research assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, was supposed to begin a new research position at Augusta University in Georgia on Aug. 1. When Ghasemi went to the Rainbow Bridge border office in Niagara Falls, Ont., in May to apply for a TN Visa (new window), she was denied.

Ghasemi said officers from Homeland Security searched through her family's social media then escorted them to their car without giving any reasons. 

A CBP officer told me having a passport of the country doesn't give me the nationality. She said my background is something else and that I'm not Canadian. That was really rude, she said. 

The family was given a letter of inadmissibility to the U.S. with no further explanation and was asked to consult the consulate in Toronto to get approved. An officer later told her it was because her husband had served in the IRGC.

The university has decided to postpone my position until next semester. But if the visa process doesn't work out, I will lose the position. The future is not clear to us.

Canada offloading responsibility to the U.S.

Ghasemi, like many others, contacted members of Parliament and the Prime Minister's Office, only to be told that it is not Canada's responsibility. 

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) told CBC News in an email statement that though it is aware of instances of Iranian-Canadians being denied entry to the U.S. and other countries, there is not an internal mechanism for tracking them.

The CBSA does not possess any power or authority to intervene in the immigration decisions made by other nations, the statement said.

Global Affairs Canada shared a similar response.

As a sovereign state, the U.S. retains the prerogative to determine the admissibility and the screening procedures for the entry of foreign nationals, a spokesperson said.

But Iranian-Canadians like Abolhassani and Ghasemi say it is very much a Canadian problem.

We feel we are second-class citizens. I thought Canada would support us, but we are not very important. This is shameful, Ghasemi said.

We want the government to stand up for us because they can solve it if they want to as they did with the Muslim ban. No one is taking action.

CBC News reached out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and CBP for a comment, but did not receive a response before publication.

4S on boarding pass

Iranian-Canadians with past conscription with IRGC often receive a 4S designation, which stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection, on their boarding passes.

Javad Mokhtarzadeh, a business owner in Montreal, said that on a recent trip to Europe his family was screened upon arrival and when they returned to Canada, their boarding passes had 4S on them.

Officers talk to us as if we aren't Canadian citizens. You granted me citizenship [and] my daughter was born here. I told my five-year-old daughter, it's part of the game when passing airports,  Mokhtarzadeh said.

It was so frustrating and infuriating they asked my little girl to raise hands for body inspection and remove her shoes. In my own country, I'm treated this way and asked whether I have something to hide.

Calgary resident Kamran Farzamfar said the problem affects even Canadian-Iranians, those born in Canada but of Iranian descent.

Farzamfar's family of four visited the U.S. multiple times before 2019, for both leisure and work. But when they went to the airport for their first vacation since the pandemic this past February, they were denied entry. 

I tried to ask the officer if they can let my sons go for holiday at least, but [they] refused us entry that day, Farzamfar said

Javad Mokhtarzadeh says even other people accompanying a former conscript are subject to the '4S' secondary screening process. (Submitted by Javad Mokhtarzadeh)

Javad Mokhtarzadeh says even other people accompanying a former conscript are subject to the '4S' secondary screening process.

Photo:  (Submitted by Javad Mokhtarzadeh)

A few days later, the family tried again to have their sons allowed in for the trip.

My son, who was born here, was denied entry. This issue is not only affecting Iranian-Canadians but also Canadian-Iranians, he said.

Calgary resident Kamran Farzamfar says he does not understand why his son born in Canada cannot travel to the U.S. or other countries. (Submitted by Kamran Farzamfar)

Calgary resident Kamran Farzamfar says he does not understand why his son born in Canada cannot travel to the U.S. or other countries.

Photo: (Submitted by Kamran Farzamfar)

On another occasion, when coming back from Frankfurt, a friend accompanying Farzamfar was also given a 4S designation, as they were on the same booking reference. 

'Zero rights as a Canadian'

Toronto resident Samin Kalhor tried to drive into the U.S. with his girlfriend, who had newly obtained Canadian citizenship, her mother and two little dogs. They were planning on celebrating Thanksgiving with family.

All three were stopped at the Buffalo border.

They took my phone, credit cards, searched the car thoroughly and even the dogs. For five hours, they collected biometrics, fingerprints, retina scans and copied all the data from my phone including social media, he said.

My girlfriend, who I'd known for two months, was also denied entry.

The couple met the same fate when travelling to Mexico for the new year holiday.

Kalhor said he was interrogated for seven hours in Cancun, in a room with glass walls with other bad guys.

All the passengers passing by could see me sitting there as if I did something wrong. They asked questions about my religion, sexuality, and everything you can imagine, he said. It was probably one of the worst days of my life. I'm a very self-confident person but it crushed me.

Kalhor said he came to Canada to make a better life for himself, but feels stuck. He said the issue will affect more Iranian-Canadians as travel picks up.

If I want to plan my honeymoon, where should I go? Wherever I'll go, I'll get flagged. This is forever, Kalhor said.

I have zero rights as a Canadian. If other countries put IRGC on their lists, we're doomed.

Pratyush Dayal (new window) · CBC News

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