Updated: May 12, 2020
Last September, Reihana Emami Arandi boarded a flight from Tehran and made her way to Boston, eager to study theology at an Ivy League university.
After nearly 100 days of vetting and background checks by the US government, the 35-year-old was bound for a graduate program at Harvard Divinity School with a student visa in hand. However, when she arrived at Boston Logan International Airport, she was promptly pulled aside by US Customs and Border Protection officers for additional questioning.
They led her to a separate area of the airport, where an officer inquired about her travels, her work experience, her family, her studies, and what her cellphone number was in Iran, she said. The officer searched her luggage, pulled out her Quran, and asked what it was.
“He then asked me what Iranian people think about the explosion in Saudi Arabia,” she said, referring to the September 14 drone strike on a Saudi Arabian oil facility for which the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen claimed responsibility.
“I explained I didn’t know much and that people generally hoped the situation would get better.”
He inspected her laptop and phone. About eight hours later, after being fingerprinted and having her photo taken, she was on a flight back to Iran, unable to enter the country for five years. Customs officers had concluded that she planned on not just studying in the US but staying here, Emami Arandi said—a charge she called “far from reality.”
Her case isn’t an aberration. At least 15 other Iranian students with valid visas have been sent home upon their arrival to American airports since last August, immigration attorneys said. In addition, about 20 more students in Tehran were unexpectedly prevented from boarding US-bound flights. Many said they were not given a reason for being refused entry.
Several of the students were held up in Boston, advocacy groups said, noting that they have received multiple complaints about one specific CBP officer there. A CBP spokesperson said they could not discuss individual cases, but that “simply having a valid visa does not guarantee entry into the US.”
“CBP officers make admissibility decisions based on whether an individual can overcome ALL grounds of inadmissibility,” the agency said in an email, adding that there was no new directive ordering additional questioning or scrutiny of Iranians with student visas.
“Regardless of having the appropriate documents, if an officer determines an individual cannot overcome all of those grounds, they will be refused entry into the US.”
University officials and Iranian American groups said they don’t know what prompted what they regard as a sudden crackdown on Iranian students. Their concerns have arisen amid mounting political tensions between the Trump administration and Iran, culminating in the US drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Suleimani on January 3 and an Iranian missile strike in response.
Advocates said it’s unclear