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NPR US News

Lawyer For Iranian Students Deported From U.S. Describes Their Plight

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Entry into the U.S. is becoming increasingly difficult for Iranians as tensions between the two countries have increased. Even Iranian-born U.S. citizens are being stopped for questioning as they enter the U.S. But Iranian students with valid visas arriving at American airports have not only been questioned by Customs and Border Protection. But some have been put on planes and sent right back to Iran. Attorney Mahsa Khanbabai is chair of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She represents some of these students who've been deported. Welcome to the program.

MAHSA KHANBABAI: Thank you so much, Renee. It's a pleasure to be here.

MONTAGNE: And what kinds of things have happened to your clients when they arrive?

KHANBABAI: We've seen a really disturbing trend of students who are entering the United States to go to school here being subjected to intensive questioning regarding their background, regarding their studies, regarding their professors and then falsely accusing some of them of lying or committing fraud and then putting them on a plane and returning them to their original destination.

MONTAGNE: What are those things they're accused of that they would not have done?

KHANBABAI: Right. So when these students enter, they have all of their documents to demonstrate they're coming here to engage in a full-time course of study. And the officer then starts to ask questions related to their background. And if they find a slight mistake in a date, for example, on a resume or forgetting to list an email address, the government is then accusing them of having committed material misrepresentation, subjecting them to a five-year or a permanent bar.

MONTAGNE: Help us out here. In the various agencies, the American agencies, that have to investigate these students before they give them a very precious thing - that is a student visa - describe for us what the agencies are and kind of what they're looking for and how they could possibly miss something that important that would show up at the airport?

KHANBABAI: Right. I mean, I think it's incredibly rare that these multitude of agencies would miss anything. But what the State Department will do is will conduct an interview, meet with the student and discuss their background, review their resume and their biographic information and then submit it into the computer system. And multiple agencies then, anywhere from the FBI to the Secret Service, CIA and other international agencies, review these students backgrounds and confirm that this person is not someone dangerous, that they don't have any ties to terrorism, that they really are who they say they are. So it's a very, very thorough process.

MONTAGNE: You know, the agency has told the Los Angeles Times - and I'm quoting, "regardless of having the appropriate documents, if an officer determines an individual cannot overcome all of those grounds" - the grounds that the officer is - I'm saying this - the officer is laying out - "they will be refused entry into the U.S." In other words, it's the officers decision to ignore whatever when - the investigation went into the visas and say, this doesn't look good to me.

KHANBABAI: Of course, these officers have a job to do to protect our country. However, what's happening is that within only a couple of hours, for example, on a Google search, on open-source documents that haven't, perhaps, been verified, they're accusing these students of not coming here to go to school and using pretenses that we really don't understand - putting these students on a plane and returning them home.

MONTAGNE: You know, I should add that we reached out to Customs and Border Protection for an interview on our response to this. They have not responded to us. But I'd like to personalize this a little bit. What actually happens to these students?

KHANBABAI: These students have studied for many, many years, taken many exams, spent a lot of money to be able to attend a school in the United States - perhaps their life savings or several years of savings. My client, for example, had actually already entered the United States multiple times without any problems crossing the border through Canada being inspected by an officer. But on his last entry, he was subjected to extensive questioning and was now just summarily turned around and told, you can't come back for five years.

MONTAGNE: That was immigration attorney Mahsa Khanbabai. Thanks very much.

KHANBABAI: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.