Published in partnership with The Intercept
YUMA — Gurjodh Singh is leaning against a rusted vehicle barrier — planted like a giant jack in the sand — at the end of the line of migrants. It’s late July, and about 400 people seeking asylum are waiting alongside a gap in the border fence as dawn breaks over the desert sky in Southern Arizona.
Gurjodh is 22, fleeing India alone for the United States to seek political asylum. Slipping off the vehicle barrier, he joins a huddle of five other Indian men, all Sikhs from the state of Punjab. A Border Patrol agent told Gurjodh he had to move to the back of the line because he didn’t have papers. The rest of the men recovered their IDs after being robbed in the jungles of Panama during a grueling months-long trek, but Gurjodh still has no ID.
As the minutes tick by, the sky brightens, and the temperature notches steadily upward, reaching above 110 degrees that day. The men are waiting for the agents to begin their processing and load them onto buses heading to a nearby Border Patrol station.
Word has begun circulating among those seeking asylum in the Yuma area: Border Patrol is forcing everyone to throw away all personal belongings, except for cell phones, wallets and travel documents. Agents are disregarding their own policies: Demanding Sikh men remove their turbans and dumping the sacred religious garb in the trash.
Bhupinder, an 18-year-old Sikh man wearing a purple turban, says, simply, “I can’t take it off.” Not cutting their hair and wearing a turban are important expressions of Sikh men’s faith.
The forced removal and confiscation of turbans violates Border Patrol policies that are meant to respect religious freedom. It also violates policies that require agents to track and return personal belongings.
On Aug. 1, American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sent a letter to Border Patrol documenting dozens of cases of agents confiscating and discarding turbans, explaining the significance of the item, and how the actions “blatantly violate federal law,” Border Patrol policy and protections of religious freedom.
A month earlier, another Sikh man seeking asylum turned himself in to Border Patrol agents near Yuma. Like many other Sikhs arriving at the southern U.S. border, he fled his home because India’s ruling and increasingly oppressive Bharatiya Janata Party has been persecuting religious minorities in his home state of Punjab, and elsewhere. Fearing retaliation and consequences for his ongoing asylum claim, he asked to be identified only by his last name, Singh, just as Bhupinder who only gave his first name.
At the same nearby Yuma Station where Gurjodh and Bhupinder would likely be processed, Singh said Border Patrol ordered him to turn over his belongings — including two sacred symbols of his faith.
“They told me to take off my turban. I know a little English, and I said, ‘It’s my religion.’ But they insisted,” Singh said, speaking through an interpreter in a July phone interview.
He pleaded with the agents. They forced him to remove his turban and tossed it in a trash pile. He asked if he could at least keep his turban for when he was released from custody. They told him no. “I felt so bad,” he said.
The Border Patrol’s Yuma sector did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In addition to keeping uncut hair, maintained in a head covering, Sikhs, according to their faith, traditionally carry a comb; wear a bracelet; wear custom cotton underwear; and carry a small, curved sword or knife.
Border Patrol agents also cut a ribbon that was holding up Singh’s traditional Sikh underwear. Since there is no elastic on them, he was unable to continue wearing them.
“They said it was to prevent suicide,” he said, “but you can use pajamas to commit suicide if you want to. You can use socks. This underwear is important to us.”
Border Patrol violating policies
Despite complaints that Border Patrol agents are violating their own policies that say they must “safeguard” personal property not deemed to be contraband or dangerous and “should remain cognizant of an individual’s religious beliefs,” Yuma’s Border Patrol has confiscated at least 64 turbans this year, according to ACLU Arizona and the Phoenix Welcome Center. In just the last two months, the organizations have documented at least 50 such confiscations.
The turban confiscations have ramped up in recent months, said Maria Jose Pinzon, a program manager for Phoenix Welcome Center, which is run by the International Rescue Committee that offers a few nights of rest and humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers.
Because the Welcome Center only records self-reported cases, and many asylum seekers are scared to register a complaint, Pinzon is confident the number is much higher.
In June, according to Pinzon, a Department of Homeland Security ombudsman visited the Welcome Center, promising to address the issue with Border Patrol. Yet the confiscations continued, with at least 11 documented cases as of July 20. The DHS Office of Immigration Detention Ombudsman, or OIDO, did not respond to requests for comment.
There appear to be no regulations that require Border Patrol to document and publicly report the number of people they removed turbans from in violation of their own policy.
Vanessa Pineda, an attorney at ACLU Arizona, called U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s practice of trashing Sikh migrants’ turbans “reprehensible.” The practice “not only violates state, federal, and CBP’s own policies, but most importantly, fails to respect peoples’ constitutional right to observe their religious beliefs,” she said.
“The turban is sacred to Sikhs,” said Deepak Ahluwalia, a private immigration attorney and advocate for Sikh rights based in San Jose, California. He’s been hearing about the Border Patrol’s practice of removing and confiscating turbans for years, saying the infringement of religious rights is not isolated to Yuma.
“It can be weeks and even months before these young men or women can cover their head — which is not only part of their faith, but part of their identity,” Ahluwalia said.
In addition to mandating that personal property, not considered contraband, be safeguarded and cataloged, Border Patrol policies state that, without compromising safety, agents “should remain cognizant of an individual’s religious beliefs while accomplishing an enforcement action in a dignified and respectful manner.”
According to the ACLU, Tucson Border Patrol Sector Chief John Modlin reached out in late July to advocates working on the issue to express concern about the confiscations, saying that agents were being re-trained. That same week, however, ACLU received additional reports of confiscated turbans.
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Gurjodh, Bhupinder, and Singh are among an increasing number of Indian asylum seekers fleeing to escape the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s crackdowns on religious minorities.
“There is so much repression against my religion,” Singh said.
A citizenship law passed in India in 2019 allows for stripping away citizenship from Muslims and the increasingly authoritarian government has been violently targeting Sikh-led protests.
Many Sikhs are coming to the U.S. to seek freedom of religion, only to be stripped of their religious garb the moment they arrive. “Their initial reception in this country can be really hostile,” said Pinzon.
“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,” said the ACLU’s Pineda, referring to Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency. “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.”
Citing “ongoing, serious religious-freedom violations in the Yuma Border Patrol Sector,” the letter from the ACLU calls on the Yuma Border Patrol Sector to “immediately cease these unlawful practices.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said she and fellow Arizona Democrat Sen. Mark Kelly’s office have raised their concerns about the turban confiscations to the DHS Office of Immigration Detention Ombudsman. They did not specify whether any actions had been taken.
Overall, interactions between migrants and border officials in Yuma have surpassed 235,000 so far in fiscal year 2022. The overwhelming majority of those — more than 208,000 — are people not from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador.
The total number of encounters in the Yuma sector are up just shy of 300 percent between fiscal years 2021 and 2022. The majority of those are with people from Venezuela, Colombia and Cuba, but the number of Indians crossing the border is also increasing rapidly.
In June 2020, Border Patrol agents came across 2,337 Indians who crossed the border. In June of 2022, that number spiked to 6,353 Indian migrants.
Help from the community
In the late spring, the Phoenix Sikh community held a turban drive to replace those taken from migrants, said Anna Keating, a volunteer with the Phoenix Welcome Center who has been coordinating replacement efforts.
They collected 75 turbans and distributed them to Sikh men who had their turbans confiscated by Border Patrol. The Welcome Center went through the supply of donated turbans in a matter of weeks. The group recently ordered another 110 turbans.
Rana Sodhi, a Sikh volunteer who frequently works with the Welcome Center, compared the turban to the hijab for Muslim women. Sodhi’s brother was murdered near Phoenix four days after the 9/11 attacks after being profiled for wearing a turban. “The person who killed him associated him with Bin Laden,” Sodhi said. “That’s not what the turban is. I’m trying to educate more people to build respect and love, to be able to accommodate all religions.”
“It’s very significant, and it’s very humiliating if someone takes it away,” he said. “It’s like you’re being violated.”
Some people don’t even want their turbans to be touched, he said. One man told Sodhi that he had only cried twice in his life: once when his mother died, and once when Border Patrol took off his turban and threw it in the trash.
Other Homeland Security agencies have figured out ways to work with Sikhs in the past. A coalition of Sikh advocacy groups, for example, collected information on how Sikhs who are flying can avoid taking off their turbans while going through airport security.
The groups encourage Sikhs to explain to Transportation Security Administration officials that the turban is religiously significant and should not be removed or touched. TSA can still check the turban with a special machine, or let the traveler pat down their own turban and then examine their hands for residue.
Turbans aren’t the only religiously significant objects that Border Patrol has been confiscating and trashing.
Phoenix’s Welcome Center recently received a Muslim woman who had her hijab taken and thrown away. She was detained, transported to Phoenix, and then released without any head covering, according to Pineda and the ACLU letter.
Gurjodh fled India after he was knocked off his bike and nearly killed by a car in what his family believes was an attempt by Bharatiya Janata Party operatives to harm him. After recovering from his injuries, Gurjodh’s family convinced him to swap his standard turban for a baseball cap — to avoid further persecution — and to flee the country.
Waiting on that scorching July morning outside Yuma, he now fears having to give up his cap. He knows it’s not a turban, but it’s the only head covering he’s had while traveling thousands of miles to seek political asylum in the U.S.
The 400 or so migrants waiting with Gurjodh to turn themselves in to Border Patrol for asylum are forced to fill about half a dumpster with their personal belongings.
Fernie Quiroz, the director of Arizona-California Humanitarian Coalition, has been showing up almost every single day for a year to try to salvage some of those items, cleaning backpacks and clothes and turning them over to the Salvation Army.
Quiroz also offers simple snacks and water, dishing out advice to the waiting migrants as he works: “Make sure you don’t leave your documents in your backpacks.” Otherwise, he says, they’ll end up in the overflowing trash bins.
One man, Lesvane, a 45-year-old Cuban asylum seeker, practices Santería — a syncretic religion that proliferated in Caribbean nations and was passed on by enslaved Africans. He carries an Elegua statue with him.
“It’s the god of pathways and crossroads. He gives health and well being,” Lesvane says, holding the figurine in his hands. “This statue represents my faith.”
Realizing he would probably have to throw his religious statue away, he quickly arranges with Fernie to have him send it to family in Miami.
Quiroz drives to the wall nearly every day to help migrants.
“I’m a son of immigrants,” he says. “My mother came here for one reason alone, to give me a better life. I’m not going to turn my back on that dream. I see my mother’s eyes in those people.”
Before being loaded onto a cramped bus to the Border Patrol station, Bhupinder still has his head covered in his bright purple turban.
Soon, the teenager will be at a processing station, like the one where Border Patrol agents ignored others’ pleas and forced them to throw their turbans in the trash.
Bhupinder offers a tight smile and, in his broken English, says: “Good luck.”
Co-published with The Intercept.
Want to help?
• Support Fernie’s work at Arizona-California Humanitarian Coalition through his GoFundMe.
• Learn more about the Regional Center for Border Health.
• Read more about International Rescue Committee and the Phoenix Welcome Center. Donate a turban or other items migrants need.