Deportation battle exposes fuzzy border line

Iranian student’s case becomes flashpoint over immigration policy

GRANTED IT SITS right on the edge of Boston Harbor on the country’s eastern shore. But it has never seemed particularly in question that East Boston is part of the United States. 

But when it comes to various holding rooms and areas of Logan Airport that lie between the airport tarmac and the doorways out of border patrol and customs services, whether people there who have arrived on international flights are, in fact, in the United States is evidently not at all clear.

That’s just one of the curious takeaways from the controversy set in motion earlier this week when immigration officials detained an Iranian student who arrived in Boston to attend Northeastern University and put him on a flight back out of the country, deporting him before he ever left the airport. 

Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi arrived at Logan on Sunday from Iran with a valid student visa after spending time with his family and renewing his visa to attend Northeastern. But US Customs and Border Protection officials detained him for questioning. 

When his lawyers learned he was potentially facing deportation, they filed an emergency petition in federal court to block his removal. US District Court Judge Allison Burroughs granted a 48-hour stay of any deportation at 9:28 p.m. on Monday, but Abadi was put on a flight that departed for Paris at 9:56 p.m., despite border agents knowing the court order had been issued, his lawyers say. 

Both of the state’s US senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, as well Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Joe Kennedy are demanding answers from immigration officials about Abadi’s removal as well as action taken against other Iranian students with valid visas. 

Three attorneys representing Abadi, Susan Church, Kerry Doyle, and Heather Yountz,  penned an op-ed in today’s Globe decrying federal immigration officials’ moves to deport their client despite a court order.

“Defying a federal judge is a serious breach, foreshadowing a potential constitutional crisis,” wrote the lawyers. “Rule of law depends on the judiciary’s ability to issue a decision and to expect it to be honored by the other branches of government. As immigration lawyers, we meet people from countries where the rule of law does not exist. None of us wants to live in such a country.”

Abadi’s lawyers say they’ve only been given vague justification for the action, saying they were told there were general concerns that he might overstay his visa. The Globe says an immigration official, speaking anonymously, pointed to ties between Abadi’s family and a company that has been sanctioned by the US for alleged ties to Hezbollah and said Abidi himself has connections to a group called Islamic Pulse, “known for its social media presence and anti-American rhetoric.” 

Church, one of Abadi’s lawyers, called all the allegations “absolutely false.” 

While immigration lawyers expressed outrage over the border agents’ apparent disregard for a federal judge’s order, the court’s jurisdiction over the issue seems murky. 

“If you’re physically inside the country, such as at an airport . . . that is considered not in the United States” until you have cleared customs, Suffolk Law School professor Ragini Shah told the Globe.

While suggesting a court would have limited authority to reverse a decision not to admit someone, Shah said that’s different from a court order to put a hold on any removal. She said a judge could have found the government in contempt for ignoring Burroughs’s emergency 48-hour stay issued on Monday night, but it was a different judge, US District Court Judge Robert Stearns, who heard the case on Tuesday morning and he appeared reluctant to issue that sanction on another judge’s initial ruling. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“It sounds like he didn’t feel comfortable issuing a contempt on somebody else’s order,” Shah said.

Abadi’s lawyers are calling for congressional hearings on Customs and Border Patrol policies and practices, writing that the agency “needs oversight and reform, and it must face consequences for its misbehavior.”