Lawyers say at least 10 Iranian students deported in last year

Students say they’re being singled out

AN IRANIAN STUDENT enrolled at Northeastern University who was deported from Logan Airport on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is hardly the first to end up sent home after arriving here.   

Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi was deported on Monday night despite a federal judge’s order that he remain in Customs and Border Protection custody and not be deported as his case was being considered.  

Abadi had been visiting family in Iran and arrived in Boston with a valid F-1 student visa after going through a renewal process. On Tuesday morning, US District Court Judge Richard Stearns dismissed the case as moot because Abadi had already been deported.   

In the past year, there have been at least 10 instances of Iranian students being deported from Logan, according to local immigration attorneys. 

Customs and Border Protection said it cannot comment on an individual’s processing due to the federal Privacy Act. A spokesman said that applicants must “demonstrate they are admissible into the US by overcoming all grounds of inadmissibility.” 

Iran was one of several countries included in President Trump’s travel ban issued in January 2017 shortly after he took office. Iranians with certain visas, including some student visas, are exempted from the ban, regardless of whether they received the visa before or after the ban was enacted. 

Immigration attorneys say Iranian students entering the US have faced heightened scrutiny since last month’s US drone strike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. 

Although many Iranian students who came to study in the US are concerned about speaking publicly to reporters, some are beginning to come forward.  

Reihana Emami Arandi, an incoming Harvard Divinity School student, was denied entry in September. She had spent almost four months getting her student visa vetted, with additional security checks. When she was pulled aside at Logan Airport, she was confused.   

“I answered their questions for more than eight hours,” Arandi said in an interview from Iran. “Then they gave me a statement and asked me to sign it.” Arandi said the statement was an inaccurate summary of the interrogation, which included questions about her political affiliation, so she refused to sign it.  

Arandi asked to speak with the Harvard University International Students office, but she said immigration officials would not allow her to make any phone calls.  

Because she refused to sign the statement prepared by customs officials, Arandi said, she is barred from reentering the US for five years. Her paperwork says that customs agents concluded that she came to the US to stay, not to study.  

“It’s truly…far from reality,” she said. “The only program I applied for was Harvard Divinity School. If someone wants to stay somewhere long-term, it’s strange to just apply to one program where the chance of being accepted is slim.” she said, adding that she has no family ties in the US either.  

Her laptop and cellphone were seized and put into checked baggage, and she was unable to use them to contact anyone until she stepped off the plane in Tehran. 

Arandi believes she was deported because she’s Iranian. Since her deportation, Cambridge immigration attorney Susan Church and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic have stepped in to represent her in a federal case, which is pending.  

Students who were flying through Logan on their way to final destinations elsewhere in the US have also been subject to removal.  

Mahla Shahkhajeh, a graduate student at Iowa State University, is back home in Iran after being denied entry on December 22.  

Shankhajeh was on connecting flight that stopped first in Boston when she was pulled aside and questioned for four hours by Customs and Border Protection officials. She mentioned that she had worked for a private packaging company as a purchasing expertA customs agent asked for her cellphone password and information about past clients, some of which were involved with Iranian oil production making plastic films. She was led to a restricted area and asked the same questions again, she said in an interview on Tuesday from Iran.  

Shankhajeh said she was asked if she was concerned about someone torturing her if she was returned back to Iran. She said no, and mentioned she had a valid student visa, which had been vetted extensively. The agent went back to his boss and relayed the information, and said the supervisor had concerns about her work in packaging, and asked if she was part of a volunteer militia group called Basij in Iran. She denied that.  

“If there was a problem with my work experience, they couldn’t have issued me a US visa,” she said.  

Shankhajeh was told she would receive documents outlining why she was being deported, but said she has never received them. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to her inquiries for the documents, but told Iowa State University in an email Shankhajeh shared with CommonWealth that they put the documents in her baggage. Shankhajeh said there were no papers in her bags. 

Shankhajeh had spent four month’s pay on a ticket to the US, and turned down offers from other doctoral programs. She estimates she spent a year’s salary on the costs associated with getting a student visa, traveling, and finding housing in the US.   

Disheartened by the ordeal, Shankhajeh is searching for PhD programs in Europe or Canada. “I think the way they treat us, like terrorists, it’s so unfair and disrespectful. We’re just some students, academic persons.” 

Laura Murray-Tjan, aattorney for Mohammad Moradi, an Iranian PhD student at Northeastern University who was refused reentry into the country in October, said immigration officials ratcheted up pressure on her client during questioning at Logan

Moradi, an electrical engineering student who had attended a prestigious conference in Paris to give a presentation, and was refused admission into the country by Customs and Border Protection following an entrance interview after landing back in Boston. “It started out friendly, but then became intimidating and aggressive,” Murray-Tjan said 

Customs officials deported Moradi on the same grounds as the action on Monday against Abadi –concern that he would stay in the US beyond the terms of his student visa.  

Murray-Tjan said it was surprising, especially since Moradi had gone to Canada twice by car to visit his uncle, who is a Christian pastor, since starting at Northeastern in May 2019. He crossed back into the US through Vermont both times “without incident,” she said.  

Local immigration attorneys say another Iranian student, who had been studying at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, was also denied entry into the country and deported within the last six monthsmarried couple from Iran, one of whom was student, were denied entry at Logan Airport within the past two weeks, according to the lawyers.  

“The actions of [Customs and Border Patrol] and the administration towards Iranian students is incredibly concerning,” said Mahsa Khanbabai, chair of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Their ability to continue their studies is jeopardized as is the critical research many of them undertake.” 

As for Abadi, his attorneys say they will refile with US District Court Judge Allison Burroughs, who issued the emergency order on Monday night. Northeastern University officials say they have reached out to Abadi, who was supposed to begin his spring semester. The university tweeted out Tuesday night that it has not received “satisfactory explanation from Customs and Border Protection” for why he was deported, especially after Burroughs had issued a 48-hour stay to keep that from happening.

“Only in the most extreme instances should students have their academic pursuits interrupted by government intervention,” the school wrote.  

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.