‘I have lost everything’: Iranian students with valid visas sent home upon arrival at US airports

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At least 17 Iranian students with valid visas to study in the US have reportedly been sent home upon their arrival at American airports since last August.

According to label immigrant rights advocates, the students who had their dream of studying in the US were sent home and most were given five-year bans on returning to the US, after Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers deemed them “inadmissible.”

Immigration lawyers claimed the deportation began last year but it escalated in recent weeks amid high political tensions between the US and Iran, after President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3.

Last September, Reihana Emami Arandi, a student who wanted to enroll for her Master’s programme at the Harvard Divinity School boarded a flight from Tehran to Boston.

When she landed in Logan airport, she was pulled aside for questioning. The 31-year-old was reportedly asked questions about her travels, work experience, family, studies and her Iranian mobile phone number. When a CBP officer searched her luggage, she asked her about a Quran that she was carrying.

Reihana claimed she was also asked about what Iranians think about the explosion in Saudi Arabia, referring to the September 14 drone attacks on two major Saudi Arabian oil facilities

“I said I was packing my things during the past days, and I hadn’t been reading or following the news,” Reihana recalled. “I explained I didn’t know much and that people generally hoped the situation would get better.”

“I went through one of the worst experiences of my life,” she said. “It was truly traumatic.”

According to Reihana, the customs officers deemed she had “immigrant intent”, or planned to overstay her student visa and live in the US – an accusation she said is “completely false”.

“I have invested a lot of time and effort in finding the opportunity to study at my dream programme,” she said.

“Had I intended to come to the US and stay longer-term, I would have applied to many more programmes – not just a highly competitive programme that I had only a slim chance of being accepted into,” she told Al Jazeera.

In a letter addressed to the US State Department, Maureen Martin, director of Immigration Service in the Harvard International Office that she called CBP at Logan Airport in the evening that Reihana was due to arrive to inquire about her whereabouts and avoid that she be subject to a five-year ban.

“We take seriously the routine audits conducted of our office and strive to maintain the highest standard to ensure we are complying with the law and that we are properly preparing students for the requirements of the student visa,” Martin wrote in her statement.

“Based on my review of Reihana’s application it did not appear there was any particular information that would support the notion that she intended to come to the United States for any other reason but to study,” she said.

Susan Church, an immigration lawyer who represents Reihana, as well as two other recently deported Iranian students, also commented on the issue saying: “We think there has been a significant increase in the questioning, interrogating, harassing, cancelling of visas and issuing of expedited removal orders against Iranians in the last 10 months or so,” said Church.

“They work their whole life towards this goal, and then a single officer takes it away,” Church told Al Jazeera. “It’s outrageous.”

On Monday, Democratic Senator from Massachusetts Ed Markey filed two civil rights complaints with the Department of Homeland Security, one on behalf of Reihana and a second on behalf of Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi, requesting that the “legally flawed expedited removal” of the two students be investigated.

Other Iranian students that have been ‘deported’ back to their country since August 2019 are Abadi, Alireza Yazdani, Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi, Mohamad Elmi, and Mahla Shahkhajeh among others.