By Pat Grubb
Field director disavows knowledge of detention directive, says Representative Pramila Jayapal
CBP Seattle field office director Adele Fasano told lawmakers she only learned of the detention of Americans of Iranian background after hearing of it through news reports, said U.S. House Representative Pramila Jayapal on Monday. Jayapal, along with Representative Suzan DelBene and representatives from the offices of Senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Kim Schrier met with Fasano and an assistant in Seattle following the leak of a CBP directive calling for enhanced examination of travelers with Iranian and other Middle Eastern backgrounds.
Upwards of 60 travelers were detained for hours as they entered the U.S. through Blaine sector ports of entry on January 4 and 5. CBP continued to deny that such a directive had been issued until it was leaked to Blaine immigration attorney Len Saunders and subsequently to news outlets. The Northern Light newspaper was first to publish the directive and story on January 29.
In a tweet following the meeting, Jayapal also wrote, “I would like to see a formal statement from CBP admitting these facts and I await the results of two investigations underway. I’m also deeply concerned that it took a leaked memo to get to this point. CBP headquarters has not been honest about what happened – and that must change.”
The Seattle Times reported Tuesday that according to Jayapal, Fasano had only learned of the directive and detention through news reports and had “deep concerns” about the matter. Jayapal continued, “To me, if you’re detaining U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents for significant amounts of time and there are significant people there, you should not be finding out about that, as the director, through news reports.”
DelBene released a statement in general agreement with Jayapal, saying, “It is disappointing that CBP officials were not honest about the incidents in Blaine when we first reached out to them with questions. I am deeply alarmed that CBP was dishonest regarding the detainment of Americans of Iranian, Lebanese, and Palestinian descent. This memo shows the CBP’s initial story, that the detainments were caused by staffing issues, to be a falsehood. The memo clearly outlines directions which were given to CBP authorities about whom to target.”
The two investigations referenced by Jayapal include one by the CBP’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and a previously unannounced one by the CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).” A spokesperson from DelBene’s Washington, D.C. office said, “The full scope of the investigations is unclear, including whether [CBP is] specifically looking into the whistleblower/memo. They did say the second investigation is being conducted by the OPR.”
The OPR, among its other responsibilities, investigates allegations of employee corruption and serious misconduct and is able to conduct employee interviews, administer polygraph tests, collect telephonic and computer information and more. The OPR is headquartered in Washington, D.C. but has regional offices including one in Bellingham. According to one source who wished to remain anonymous, agents wear plain clothes and typically have come from another government agency such as ICE or the FBI. Investigations can be as short as weeks or stretch to years. The source expressed hope that the investigators would take a hard look at the officers at the top of the pyramid and not just at frontline officers. Referring to the ongoing denial that a directive existed, he said, “They lied about the lie,” and added that front line officers have it drilled into their heads from day one the importance of being completely honest. GS14 and GS15 level officers should be held to the same standard, he said.
Employee morale at the Department of Homeland Security consistently shows up at the bottom or near the bottom of rankings of annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government with CBP being a major driver of the low rankings. In 2019, CBP was ranked 380 out 420 sub-agencies of the department with an engagement score of 49.5. Testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee on January 14 cited the most consequential factors determining low morale was the work itself and the quality of leaders. Saunders said he had been approached by a number of Blaine sector frontline officers who disagreed with recent policies especially in regard to the detentions and expedited removals.
“Something doesn’t add up,” said Saunders, referring to Fasano’s admission that she did not know about the directive. “The director flat out denied that she knew about it? If it’s true that she actually didn’t know about the operation, it’s shocking. For the head of the Seattle Field Office not to know what directives were coming out of her office, that’s incompetency. But if she did know, then she’s lying to elected officials and throwing her officers under the bus. It took a month for her to say anything and only after the directive was leaked to the public. I’ll be surprised if this is the end of the story.”
The leak of the directive received international exposure. Following the story’s publication by The Northern Light newspaper, it was covered by The New York Times, Washington Post, CBC, Associated Press, Seattle Times, NBC, CNN and many more. On February 3, the Vancouver Sun published an article by Edward Alden, the Ross Distinguished Professor of U.S.-Canada Economic Relations at Western Washington University. Alden wrote that the increase in expedited removals and the recent crackdown on U.S. citizens with Iranian backgrounds by local CBP officials were “likely to further chill cross-border travel and commerce and drive a deeper wedge between the two countries.”