Iranian Families Separated by Travel Ban Reunite at Library Straddling Two Countries
Six hours north of New York City, Iranians come to see family members they may not have been able to see in years, thanks to the Trump administration travel ban. The destination for these family members is the Haskell Free Library and Opera House located simultaneously in Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec. This journey is not without stress however, as many fear missing the turnoff and accidentally crossing the border. As most of these individuals have only a single entry visa, should they mistakenly leave the country it is likely they won’t be allowed back in again.
There is equal concern for those who come to Canada and travel south to rendezvous with loved ones. Barred from visiting family in the U.S. by the travel ban, they worry over interactions with border agents. Due to the recent forced separation of migrant families and subsequent placement in overcrowded shelter, Iranians fear they could suffer a similar fate.
Worries about being placed in a detention facility have not been reportedly realized, due to agents ensuring they don’t cross the border. Yet other concerns are not unwarranted, as those who mistakenly enter the line for the U.S. port of entry without U.S. visas are held, sometimes for hours before being permitted to go to the library. Other times they may be released only to be turned away from the border and their waiting relatives.
To date, dozens of Iranian families have met at the Haskell library after learning of the chance to reunite through word-of-mouth and a small number of social media posts. These families have made the journey despite the cost, which includes airfare to and from Iran and often, thousands of dollars in additional expenses. There is also the anxiety over the possibility of being detained on the Canadian side or being deported from the U.S. side. Yet they are willing to face these obstacles for even a few hours together with their loved ones.
In addition to being held for several hours, many of these families have reported that border agents have tried to prevent them from entering the building, stated such visits weren’t allowed or instructed that their visit should be limited to just a few minutes. Others say when they attempt to meet relatives, border control personnel prevent them from doing so, claiming the library has been closed for months. Some of these family members may be allowed to talk briefly outside, standing on opposite sides of the border but only under the watchful eye of officials.
In some cases, library staff find excuses to enable relatives to enter, such as offering them a tour of the facility, which is clearly still open. This can create problems for these employees who may be rebuked for their actions or be brought up on disciplinary charges. According to staff members of the library, both U.S. and Canadian officials have threatened to close the library because of the visits.
Defending the travel ban, the Trump Administration has stated that the policy is necessary to protect U.S. citizens from threats, including possible terrorist activity. The administration blames the countries in question which include Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Venezuela, for the ban. U.S. authorities argue that the governments of these nations refuse to provide enough information to confirm that their citizens do not pose a danger to the U.S.
After a long legal fight, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Trump’s travel ban this summer after a lengthy legal battle. Iranians are affected the most by the ban as they frequently study in the United States and tend to be middle class so they can afford international travel. Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection have refused to comment on whether these allegation are true. The only statement that has been reported was made by spokesman, Michael McCarthy who said, “U.S. Border Patrol works closely with our Canadian counterparts, as well as the local community, to prevent illegal cross border activity.” However, officials at the corresponding Canadian authority have denied that they have threatened to close the library, though not the other allegations made by families.
A few Iranian families have also met in Peace Arch park, located in both Washington state and British Columbia. But the majority of Iranians studying in the U.S. attend Universities in the eastern U.S. and they have difficulty affording the costs associated with crossing the continent. This means that the Haskell Library is the only option which allows them to visit with family members.