LEMON GROVE, Calif. - A local man is speaking to 10News about what it is like being on the terror watch list after classified documents revealed San Diego is among the cities with the most people on the secret lists.
Kevin Iraniha showed 10News a photo of him posing with his brothers and father during his graduate school graduation in Costa Rica in 2012.
Iraniha, who was born and raised in San Diego, would never board his flight home.
"It was a bottomless drop," he said. "Your heart sinks."
The airline told him he could not fly. At the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica, he says the FBI and Department of Homeland Security personnel grilled him on a previous trip to Iran to visit family, along with vacations to Egypt and India.
"At the end they told me, 'You're on the no-fly list,'" said Iraniha.
He ended up flying to Tijuana. 10News cameras were there as he walked into the San Diego through the port of entry.
Iraniha is one of nearly 21,000 U.S. citizens and permanent residents on the U.S. terror watch lists.
That number was revealed by the online magazine "The Intercept" in classified, counterterrorism documents.
The documents also branded San Diego the No. 4 ranking for suspected terrorists.
Terrorism experts say those lists have been slowly expanding.
"Probably looking at more individuals and their ties rather than less individuals and their ties in order to prevent another 9/11," said Ron Bee, terrorism expert and San Diego State University professor.
Bee believes a trip to Iran or Syria would now draw scrutiny and perhaps lead to a presence on the watch list.
As for Iraniha, he went to the Dept. of Homeland Security website and filed a complaint.
He received a case number or "redress" number, which he must bring to airports.
Since Costa Rica, he has taken six trips – international and domestic – often met with vigorous baggage and security screenings and even long phone calls researching his background.
"There's no due process whatsoever to get onto the list or get off the list," said Iraniha. "It's sad. We're supposed to be the country with the most freedoms."
Bee says the reason for all the secrecy is that revealing too much about the lists would give terrorists an edge.
"It's like handing someone a road map to go around," he said.
Iraniha said, "These are normal citizens, and you're taking away their rights."
The classified documents also showed the 47,000 people – including 800 Americans – were on the government's no-fly list, while an additional 16,000 were on the "selectee" list. Selectees are permitted to travel but receive extra scrutiny at checkpoints.
Other cities at the top of the watch list rankings include New York City, Houston and Dearborn, Michigan, where 40 percent of the population has an Arabic background.