San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission Takes the Lead in Investigating the Denial of Entry to Iranian Visitors
San Francisco, CA - The San Francisco Human Rights Commission is taking the lead on investigating the denial of entry and detention of Iranian visitors coming to the United States for Sharif University of Technology’s (SUTA) reunion. The Human Rights Commission invited public comment on the issue during the Commission’s hearing on Thursday, September 28, 2006 at San Francisco City Hall, an effort headed in part by Commissioner Nazly Mohajer. What has resulted is a slowly clearing picture of why the Iranian visitors were denied entry, and what steps the city of San Francisco is taking to achieve some form of justice for the intended visitors.
In the days leading up to August 4-6, 2006, the scheduled dates of the SUTA reunion, more than 80 Iranians, holding valid visas granted just weeks earlier by consulates in places like Dubai and Istanbul, were denied entry, detained, and deported back to their country of origin. The United States Customs and Border Protection (USCBP), an agency under the umbrella of Department of Homeland Security (DHS), effected the Iranians’ denial of entry. The USCBP told the visitors that their visas were revoked and they were therefore not allowed to enter the country. Many of the visitors were detained by USCBP, shackled, and held in jails for a period of hours up to five days, in conditions that constitute gross violations of acceptable legal standards.
The Commission extended an invitation to the USCBP, by letter and phone, to attend the hearing, but the USCBP denied the invitation.
Dr. Fredun Hojabri, a member of SUTA’s board and the organizer of SUTA’s reunion, attended the hearing and gave insight into how the situation unfolded during the days preceding the reunion. Dr. Hojabri had coordinated the organization’s effort to obtain visas for SUTA members abroad. He recounted to the crowded hearing room his correspondence with consulates to obtain visas for reunion participants in the months and weeks before the reunion, and his correspondence and communications with the consulates and government after receiving news of the participants’ denial of entry. Dr. Hojabri stated that even after the first wave of Iranians were denied entry and detained, consulates abroad continued to grant visas to other SUTA members to come to the United States. Ultimately, 121 Iranians were either denied entry or not granted visas, the majority of whom were granted visas and denied entry. Dr. Elahe Enssani, who is on San Francisco’s Immigrant Rights Commission and is a SUTA member, also spoke on behalf of SUTA members denied entry into the country.
Atessa Chehrazi, a Bay Area lawyer who was able to speak with a USCBP representative, explained at the hearing the basis on which the USCBP claims to have denied entry to the Iranian visitors. Chehrazi stated that two security checks are run on visitors coming to the United States on visitor visas. The first check is extensive – the FBI conducts a thorough background check on an intended visitor prior to a consulate granting a visa. The second security check is a quick check of a flight’s manifest (passenger list), which is intended to catch any changes in the background of passengers, which might have occurred since the passengers’ visas were issued.
The USCBP claims that the Iranians were denied entry into the United States based on results of the second security check. Chehrazi explained that results of the second security check should be known to government officials either immediately prior to a flight taking off, or while a flight is in the air. The question remains then why passengers departing from Iran were not notified of their visa revocation either before their flight took off, or at their layover destination.
San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi spoke at the hearing, echoing the concerns of Iranian Americans and the community at large. Mirkarimi denounced the government’s treatment of the Iranian visitors. Upon learning of the Iranians’ denial of entry, Mirkarimi contacted the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), causing NLG lawyers to rush to the aid of the Iranian visitors. Mirkarimi is now working with the NLG and others, to devise an effective legal strategy to achieve justice -- even if just compensatory damages -- for the Iranian visitors denied entry.
The San Francisco Human Rights Commission closed the session by thanking hearing participants for attending and speaking out on behalf of the Iranians denied entry. Commission Chairman Khaldoun Baghdadi expressed the Commission’s understanding of the severe nature of the human rights violation at issue. A three-person committee, including Chairman Baghdadi and Commissioner Nazly Mohajer, will head the continued effort to investigate the matter and take action that is consistent with the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Commission.