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California student takes the long way home to US after 'no-fly' designation

Iraniha family

Kevin Iraniha, after graduating from an international law program in Costa Rica, with his brothers Jahan, far left, and Shervin, second from left. His father, Nasser Iraniha, is on the right.

A U.S. citizen from San Diego who was barred from boarding a flight home from Costa Rica — apparently because he has been placed on the U.S. no-fly list — was attempting to fly to Mexico and cross into the United States by land on Thursday, attorneys familiar with his case said.

Kevin Iraniha, 27, had just completed his master's degree in international law at a United Nations-affiliated Peace University in Costa Rica and was preparing to return home on Tuesday when he was refused boarding, according to Munia Jabbar, a staff attorney with the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a non-profit civil rights group.

Iraniha went to the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica, where he was questioned extensively by FBI agents about his religious beliefs, his attendance and contacts at mosques in Costa Rica, and whether he was involved in activities that presented a threat, Jabbar said.

Iraniha was born and raised in San Diego. His father is an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, and his mother is a native-born U.S. citizen.

The officials indicated he was on the U.S. no-fly list of people who are prohibited from boarding domestic flights or international flights that enter U.S. airspace. The list has grown from just a few names prior to Sept. 11, 2001, when Islamic extremists used commercial flights to attack the United States, to a roster of about 20,000 names, including about 500 U.S. citizens in 2012.


In order to get home, Iraniha booked an alternative flight to Mexico City and onward to Tijuana, and planned to drive over the border to San Diego.

Kevin Iraniha could not immediately be reached by phone, but his brother Jahan said that he had received messages confirming arrival in Mexico City and imminent boarding of a flight for Tijuana. Family members were planning to go to the Mexican border to meet Iraniha Thursday evening, according to Jahan Iraniha, who declined further comment until Friday.

"At this moment we are trying to get him safely home, and we will look at the details and questions in coming days," said Hanif Mohebi, executive director of CAIR San Diego.

Dozens of Americans — primarily Muslims — have been stranded overseas by the no-fly list. As in Iraniha’s case, many discover they are on the list only when they are at an airport trying to check in for a flight.

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The no-fly list does not bar American citizens from returning to the United States by land.

But Iraniha’s ability to return is still uncertain, and there are few precedents for attempting to do so.

Another American who found he was on the no-fly list when attempting to return to the U.S. from Bogota, Colombia, was Raymond Knaeble.  After landing in Mexico City in May 2010, with plans to travel onward by land, Knaeble was interrogated by Mexican officials for 15 hours and then deported to Bogota, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to the court documents, filed on behalf of 15 plaintiffs challenging the U.S. no-fly list, Knaeble finally got back to the United States from Colombia in August 2010 by traveling by bus for 12 days.

The no-fly list, maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center under the FBI, includes "known or reasonably suspected terrorists," according to the FBI website.

A background check showed no criminal background for Iraniha.

In 2010, he helped organize a peace protest to counter a planned Quran burning by anti-Muslim activists, according to the Ocean Bay Rag, a small publication in Southern California.

Iraniha spoke to the Union Tribune of San Diego after he was initially barred from his flight and questioned by the FBI about his religious beliefs and affiliations.

"It's discrimination," he told the publication. "I was shocked; it was really weird to have such questions being asked. First and foremost, I'm an American, and secondly, I don't believe in violence."

The publication said Iraniha — a self-described peace activist and "beach boy" — plans to take some type of action, possibly filing a lawsuit.

Iraniha's two brothers and his father, who had come to Costa Rica to attend his graduation, were all allowed to fly home to the United States.

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