Yuma Border Patrol agents accused of confiscating turbans of Sikh asylum seekers

Ritu Jha-

Agents of the US Customs and Border Protection’s (USCBP) Yuma sector have been accused by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of confiscating turbans from at least 50 Sikh male individuals in the last two months during asylum processing, thus violating their religious freedom.

The Yuma Sector patrols 126 miles of border with Mexico, between the Yuma-Pima County line in Arizona and the Imperial Sand Dunes in California.

In a letter to the USCPB Commissioner Chris Magnus, the ACLU – a nonprofit working to defend individual rights and freedoms – has said that, “These practices blatantly violate federal law. They are also inconsistent with CBP’s own national standards and contrary to the agency’s non-discrimination policy, which states that “CBP employees must treat all individuals with dignity and respect… with full respect for individual rights including… freedom of religion.”

The ACLU has asked Magnus to “promptly investigate these civil-rights violations and direct agents in the Yuma Border Patrol Sector to immediately cease these unlawful practices.”

When indica reached out to Commissioner Magnus, he responded, “We take allegations of this nature very seriously. This issue was raised in June and steps were immediately taken to address the situation. Our expectation is that CBP employees treat all migrants we encounter with respect. An internal investigation has been opened to address this matter.”

Vanessa Pineda, Immigrants’ Rights staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona told indica, “CBP’s current practice requiring the permanent disposal of Sikh migrants’ turbans is reprehensible and not only violates state, federal, and CBP’s own policies but most importantly fails to respect peoples’ constitutional right to observe their religious beliefs. CBP’s actions humiliate Sikh migrants as they flee their homes seeking asylum. It is just one of the most egregious examples of how CBP’s disposal of migrants’ personal property creates a dehumanizing experience for all migrants seeking protection in the United States. The ACLU of Arizona calls for CBP to immediately end this unconscionable and unconstitutional practice of denying Sikh migrants their right to religious freedom and expression.”

The ACLU informed the CBP that the Sikh faith is the world’s fifth largest organized religion. “There are approximately 30 million Sikhs worldwide, and over 500,000 Sikhs reside in the United States,” the letter stated. “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. These articles of faith have deep spiritual significance, as they signify an individual’s commitment to Sikhism and its highest ideals of love and service to humanity. Unlike some other faiths, where only the clergy are in uniform, most initiated Sikhs believe they are required to wear external articles of faith. The Sikh Code of Conduct, called the Rehat Maryada, explicitly instructs that observant Sikhs wear a turban over their unshorn, uncut hair.”

According to the ACLU, its officials discussed the religious headwear issue with DHS officials at recurring stakeholder meetings. CBP representatives claimed to ACLU 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.” However, the ACLU said their internal investigation indicate otherwise.
“During these meetings, 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 ACLU said. “Despite numerous contacts about this issue, to our knowledge, no meaningful investigation has occurred.”