U.S. border agents in the Yuma sector have seized turbans from almost 50 Sikh asylum-seekers in recent weeks, civil rights advocates said in an alarming letter earlier this month. But volunteers with an immigrant advocacy group along the borderlands revealed the number could actually be into the hundreds, and that these religious freedom violations have also stretched into the Tucson sector. Lawmakers are now demanding answers in an Aug. 17 letter to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner.
“We are greatly alarmed by continuing reports that people are being indiscriminately forced to give up their religious items and other possession—which are then trashed in many cases,” they wrote. “According to multiple entities working directly with Sikh migrants, communication and cooperation with CBP officials specific to this issue has been difficult, making it even more urgent to address this situation as soon as possible.”
Following the disturbing revelations earlier this month that border agents had seized, and refused to return, religious headwear belonging to Sikh migrants, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said that he was opening an investigation. But since then, non-profit news organization Arizona Luminariareported that abuses were more far-reaching than previously known, as lawmakers also noted in their letter.
“Such actions constitute a violation of multiple Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policies and federal laws that protect religious freedom and an individual’s personal property while under custody,” Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, California Rep. Judy Chu, and Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva write.
”Confiscating and discarding religious items, including Sikh turbans, is an egregious violation of an individual’s religious freedom and goes against the values of our nation,” they said. “As you may be aware, many of the Sikh individuals making their way to the United States border are seeking asylum on the basis of religious persecution.” They note that turbans carry “deep spiritual significance, and are mandated by Sikhs’ religious traditions and should not be forcibly removed or discarded.”
“Unfortunately, the confiscation or forced disposal of individuals’ personal property, including religious items, is a long-standing issue that has become more prevalent over the past year,” they continued. Even though border agents are supposed to return personal items to migrants, they oftentimes just trash them. Other religious items, like rosaries, have also been thrown away by agents. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona said in its Aug. 1 letter to Magnus that agents have actually been confiscating turbans as far back as 2019, but that the seizures jumped this past June.
“What actions has CBP taken to ensure agents are not confiscating and/or discarding religious items, including turbans, at all border entries?” lawmakers ask. They also question “what measures are in place to hold agents who violate CBP policy in relation to the issues outlined above accountable,” and “what steps have been taken to investigate Border Patrol stations’ compliance with agency policies around seizure.” They ask Magnus “to provide answers to our inquiries by September 6, 2022.”
“As recently as just a few days ago, Sikh migrants were still being mistreated at the southern border,” said Sikh Coalition Legal Director Amrith Kaur Aakre. “We continue to demand a full accounting of how the seizure of turbans and other such misconduct still persists at various border entries and what steps will be taken by the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that it stops permanently. We deeply appreciate Reps. Grijalva, Castro, and Chu’s leadership in working to ensure both accountability and transparency around this issue.”
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