Border Patrol agents have violated the religious freedom of dozens of asylum-seekers throughout the past two months alone, confiscating and refusing to return turbans belonging to almost 50 Sikh individuals who have crossed the southern border into Arizona.
Advocates have noted border agents seizing turbans and other sacred items from Sikh migrants as far back as 2019, and rising sharply this past June, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona said. Border Patrol’s own policies say that personal belongings have to be returned to migrants, but they oftentimes just throw them away. The Aug. 1 letter states agents “never returned or replaced” religious headwear seized from asylum-seekers.
Following the disturbing news, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Chris Magnus said Wednesday that an investigation will be opened into the abuses, The Washington Post reported.
“The International Rescue Committee (IRC) of Arizona operates a reception site in Phoenix (‘the Welcome Center’) that receives a large proportion of asylees who are released from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) custody within Arizona,” the ACLU of Arizona said in the letter. “In the last two months, IRC has documented almost 50 cases of asylees arriving from Yuma who reported that their religious headwear—specifically, turbans—had been confiscated by CBP.”
Government representatives have known about agents confiscating religious headwear; advocates raised the issue during government stakeholder meetings in May and June. “CBP representatives claimed that the agency confiscates turbans only when they pose a security risk and that agents decline to store the turbans only when they are wet or damaged,” the letter continued. “The reports received by IRC, however, indicate otherwise.”
The ACLU of Arizona said that only in late July did the Tucson sector border chief reach out to IRC to say that he’d spoken to officials at the Yuma sector. “But IRC has yet to see any evidence of this. Indeed, as recently as this week, IRC has received additional reports of turban seizures by Yuma Border Patrol.”
“Federal courts have repeatedly held that denying a person of faith the right to wear religious headgear imposes a substantial burden on their religious exercise,” the letter continued. “By confiscating and failing to return Sikh individuals’ turbans, CBP directly interferes with their religious practice and forces them to violate their religious beliefs. As discussed above, for many Sikhs, the turban is a central aspect of their religious identity; exposing their ‘naked’ heads to others is considered sacrilegious and shameful.” That is likely exactly why they have been seizing their sacred items, with agents already on the record as expressing deep disdain and hatred for migrants.
“Many individuals seeking asylum, particularly those who are Sikh, have fled their home countries due to religious persecution and should feel safe in practicing their faith in the United States,” the ACLU of Arizona continued.
Border agents forced migrants to discard items they have arrived with, including other religious items like rosaries, and then turned around and accused them of littering. The Guardian reported in May that Border Patrol marked Earth Day on April 22 “by posting pictures on Instagram of asylum seekers’ belongings with the message that it was ‘trash and litter left behind by illegal immigration’. In Texas, Brian Hastings, border patrol chief for the Rio Grande Valley sector—another busy corridor for migrant arrival—last summer tweeted ‘It’s piling up’ and labeled images of people’s property ‘burdensome trash.’”
But while Magnus has said there will be a probe into the abuses against Sikh asylum-seekers, The Washington Post reported it’ll be an “internal investigation.” When officials conducted an internal investigation into the abuses against Haitian asylum-seekers at Del Rio last year, they failed to interview one single migrant.
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