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Border officials investigating claims Sikh turbans were confiscated

U.S. Border Patrol agents process migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in June in Yuma, Ariz. (Eric Thayer for The Washington Post)
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U.S. authorities are investigating complaints that the religious rights of dozens of Sikh asylum seekers were violated recently when their turbans were confiscated by Border Patrol agents in the Yuma, Ariz., area, officials said Wednesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sent a letter Monday to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus saying the organization since June has documented almost 50 cases in which agents confiscated turbans, denouncing the seizures as “ongoing, serious religious-freedom violations.”

Magnus said Wednesday that CBP takes the accusations seriously.

“Our expectation is that CBP employees treat all migrants we encounter with respect,” Magnus said in a statement. “An internal investigation has been opened to address this matter.”

CBP officials in the agency’s Yuma sector have seen a historic influx of asylum seekers from nations all over the world, including India in recent months. Nearly 10,000 Indian nationals have been taken into custody by agents in Yuma during fiscal 2022, which began Oct. 1, according to the most recent CBP data, up from 1,834 during all of fiscal 2021.

Many of the migrants from India are Sikhs from the country’s Punjab region who have come to the United States seeking religious freedom, according to the ACLU letter. “The Sikh faith is the world’s fifth largest organized religion,” it reads, adding that there are about 30 million Sikhs worldwide and more than 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States.

“Many Sikhs wear an external uniform to unify and bind them to the beliefs of the religion and to always remind them of their commitment to Sikh teachings,” the ACLU said. “… When a Sikh ties a turban, the turban ceases to be just a piece of cloth and becomes one and the same with the Sikh’s head. It is a religious commitment without which many Sikhs may feel that they have ceased to be a Sikh.”

CBP officials said they have recently reminded Border Patrol supervisors that agency policies require agents to exercise care when handling “personal property items of a religious nature.”

Migrants taken into CBP custody along the border are typically required to discard personal items such as backpacks, food or extra clothing. Agents also direct them to remove their shoelaces, which are considered a safety hazard for migrants in detention. Items of value or importance that are not deemed contraband are supposed to be safeguarded and returned to individuals when they are released or deported.

CBP policy also directs agents to “remain cognizant of an individual’s religious beliefs while accomplishing an enforcement action in a dignified and respectful manner,” according to the agency.

The ACLU letter to Magnus, reported Tuesday by the Intercept, said the confiscation of the turbans was part of a “more universal, well-documented, and recurring practice by agents in the Yuma Border Patrol Sector of forcing apprehended migrants to discard nearly all of their personal property in advance of processing.”

At the most popular crossing point in Yuma, the Border Patrol has placed large trash bins where agents tell migrants to jettison most personal items. The volume of detritus is so large that a Washington Post reporter encountered in June a man who crosses from Mexico each night to scavenge through the belongings for items of value.

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The ACLU of Arizona said immigrant advocates raised concerns about the confiscation of religious headwear in meetings with Homeland Security officials in June. CBP officials told them the items were only taken in instances when they were determined to be a security risk, and the turbans were returned unless they were “wet or damaged.”

Reports from immigrant advocates indicate otherwise, the ACLU told Magnus in its letter, adding that “officials seemed unaware of their obligations under CBP policy and federal law to protect asylees’ religious-freedom rights and, when informed that the seizure of turbans had markedly increased in recent months, they had no viable explanation for it.”

The CBP statement issued Wednesday did not indicate whether the turbans were discarded, nor whether the examples occurred as Sikh migrants were being taken into custody along the border or upon their arrival to CBP detention facilities.

The ACLU of Arizona said it has not received reports of turban confiscations from other areas of the border besides the Yuma sector.

Indian migrants traveling to Yuma typically arrive first in Mexico, then travel to the border town of Los Algodones along the banks of the Colorado River. Smugglers direct them to wade across and pass through one of several unfinished gaps in the 30-foot border wall.

The Department of Homeland Security said last week that it will close gaps at one illegal entry point in the Yuma sector, citing the safety risks of the river crossing.

The most popular opening is the spot where the barrier ends on tribal land along the edge of the Cocopah Reservation. That area, which frequently appears in photos of migrants lining up along the base of the border wall, will remain open, as tribal authorities have not allowed CBP to build the barrier on their land.