Workers with ties to a human-rights group are now saying that Arizona Border Patrol agents’ practice of forcing Sikh men to trash their turban extends beyond Yuma and is significantly more prevalent than previously reported.

They also said agents are refusing Sikh asylum-seekers their religiously-required vegetarian diet, threatening them that they can “starve” if they don’t want to eat what they are served.

One worker, who has interned with Tucson-based Casa Alitas, said Thursday that the number of turbans confiscated and discarded by Border Patrol is in the hundreds, far beyond the number reported earlier this week.

“One Sikh man, when I handed him a turban to cover his hair started crying and kissed the fabric,” they said, adding that “a group of vegetarian Sikhs said they were living off apple juice and crackers for seven days.”

On Friday, a volunteer with the group, said they’ve seen at least 20 Sikh men at the Tucson center reporting similar violations by Border Patrol agents. A separate worker, who also interned for Casa Alitas, confirmed the accounts.

The whistleblowers spoke with Arizona Luminaria on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation and losing their connection to the center.

“We were advised not to talk to the press about anything to maintain our relationship with Border Patrol, but sitting here and doing nothing is not helping anything,” the volunteer said.

The director of Casa Alitas, Teresa Cavendish, said that the sources were violating their media policy and had no authority to represent the center. Cavendish did not comment on the allegations. 

The new allegations show that Arizona Border Patrol agents’ practice of violating Sikh migrants’ religious rights is markedly more widespread than initial reports outlined on Tuesday after the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sent a letter to Border Patrol documenting the violations. They called for an immediate end to Yuma agents forcing Sikh men to remove their turbans and dumping the sacred religious garb in the trash. 

The forced removal and confiscation of turbans violates federal protections and Border Patrol policies that are meant to respect religious freedom. It also violates policies that require agents to track and return personal belongings.

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One of the workers said that the the violations extend beyond Yuma, sharing reports of Sikhs passing through Lukeville in Border Patrol’s Tucson sector also having their turbans confiscated.

Arizona Luminaria obtained exclusive documentation of the confiscations earlier this week and co-published a report with The Intercept on the initial Yuma Border Patrol violations. The reporting was based on numerous interviews with people directly affected, advocates and the Aug. 1 ACLU letter that counted at least 64 turbans confiscated in the Yuma sector this year.

The next day, the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol’s parent agency, announced they were opening an internal investigation into the complaints of religious-rights violations.

“Our expectation is that CBP employees treat all migrants we encounter with respect,” said CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus in an emailed statement.

The tally of 64 turbans comes mostly from the International Rescue Committee’s Phoenix Welcome Center, which has been keeping track of complaints voluntarily made by migrants recently released from Border Patrol custody.

Not cutting their hair and wearing a turban are important expressions of Sikh men’s faith. Singh, an asylum-seeker, told Arizona Luminaria that he pleaded with Yuma Border Patrol agents to allow him to keep his turban. He asked to be identified by his last name only, fearing retaliation and consequences for his ongoing asylum claim

“I said, ‘It’s my religion.’ But they insisted,” Singh said. “I felt so bad.”

Whistleblower: Tucson Border Patrol also violating Sikh asylees’ rights

Officials with Tucson’s Casa Alitas did not respond to a request for comment for the original article.

However, after the report drew national outrage from Sikh and migrant-and civil-rights advocates, a volunteer at Casa Alitas — frustrated that management was refusing to speak to the press  about the pervasive violations — reached out to Arizona Luminaria to share their eyewitness accounts.

They supplied documentation tallying both turban confiscations and denial of religiously-required vegetarian meals.

Confiscated turbans had recently become such a problem in Tucson that another volunteer went out and “bought bolts and bolts of fabric” so they could offer Sikh men something to cover their head with.

The center put the material for makeshift turbans on the intake table, the volunteer explained, where Sikhs arriving could use the fabric to cover their hair. They could personally account for about 20 people who had recently had their turbans confiscated by Border Patrol, but were confident the number is significantly higher.

“There’s definitely more,” they said. The source who interned for the center said they’ve heard accounts of the violations since at least December and placed the number of confiscations in the hundreds.

The new information means Border Patrol agents are forcing Sikhs to strip off and trash their turbans in the Yuma and Tucson sectors.

Vanessa Pineda, of ACLU Arizona, said the new revelations were “further evidence that border officials are intentionally violating the religious-freedom rights of Sikh asylees.”

CBP Investigates

After the Aug. 2 story, Magnus said in a statement that the issue was initially raised in June, and that “steps were immediately taken to address the situation.” Border Patrol did not specify what steps. 

In June a Department of Homeland Security ombudsman had visited the Phoenix Welcome Center and was alerted to the problem, according to Maria Jose Pinzon, the center’s program manager.

The ombudsman promised to address the issue with Border Patrol. Yet, the confiscations continued, according to the ACLU letter, with at least 11 documented cases after the ombudsman’s visit. The confiscations “blatantly violate federal law” and Border Patrol policy, the letter stated.

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.” 

Since October, nearly 10,000 Indians have crossed the border and turned themselves into Border Patrol, according to the latest statistics. In all of fiscal year 2021, there were less than 2,000. And in 2020, there were barely more than 200.

The number of Indians taken into Border Patrol custody in the Tucson sector in June shot up to 206. As recently as March, those numbers were in the single digits.

Many Indian asylum-seekers are fleeing their home country to escape the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s persecution of religious minorities. One 22-year-old Sikh man told Arizona Luminaria that his family urged him to escape after he was knocked off his bike and nearly killed by a car in what he described as an attempt by Bharatiya Janata Party operatives to harm him.

Lesvane, 45, a Cuban asylum seeker who practices Santería, holds a statue of Elegua, that he fears he’ll have to throw away after turning himself into Border Patrol. Credit: John Washington

Not all encounters with Border Patrol are fraught. A Cuban asylum-seeker, Lesvane, who spoke with Arizona Luminaria before turning himself in to agents outside of Yuma, called from Texas two weeks later later to say that he’d been released. “They treated me perfectly,” Lesvane said. “They even found and gave me the medication I needed.”

A Border Patrol spokesperson told Arizona Luminaria in response to the article earlier this week and the ACLU letter, “CBP strives to protect civil rights and civil liberties, including respect for an individual’s religious beliefs.” 

CBP’s National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention and Search, state “[a]ll detainees’ personal property discovered during apprehension or processing and not deemed to be contraband will be safeguarded.” 

While the spokesperson said that “CBP procedures allow personnel to discard items that pose a clear health or safety hazard,” they also reiterated Magnus’s statement that they have “provided additional guidance to field leadership reiterating the expectation that personnel exercise particular care when handling personal property items of a religious nature.” 

Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) was one of 20 lawmakers to submit a letter to CBP this week raising concerns about Border Patrol confiscating migrants’ personal property. 

The letter included a list of 18 questions for CBP. One of them was: “What policies have been put in place to ensure that data related to migrant possessions is tracked for further transparency and accountability? Are the facilities able to publicly release a quarterly report of property that is retrieved, retained, lost, or discarded?”

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. 

Border Patrol agents regularly take away any possession that could be used to commit suicide, including shoelaces. Agents told Singh, the asylum-seeker, that was the reason he couldn’t keep his turban. He balked at the excuse, saying that people could use their socks or pajamas to harm themselves so why would agents target Sikh migrants for their religious head covering.

“There is no foreseeable security reason as to why the turban could not be returned to its owner following a BP officer searching the item and asserting that it is safe, i.e. no weapons or drugs are being carried in the item,” said Garth den Heyer, professor in the Policing, Terrorism and Homeland Security School of Criminology & Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. 

Border Patrol’s “actions are culturally insensitive,” den Heyer added, “and can be viewed as possibly being a breach of human rights or a form of persecution under the United Nations articles.”

“…Or You Can Starve”

More than just removed turbans, some Sikh asylum-seekers at Border Patrol’s Tucson processing center alleged they were not offered vegetarian meals, according to the Casa Alitas volunteer. 

“It’s a beef burrito. You can eat it or have crackers and apple juice, or you can starve,” one agent said, according to the asylum-seekers.

Jaswant Singh, a retired physician in Phoenix and longtime active member in the Sikh community, said forcing a vegetarian Sikh to eat meat “is a kind of a crime. I can’t think of a better way to describe it.” 

“CBP strives to protect civil rights and civil liberties, including respect for an individual’s religious beliefs or dietary restrictions,” a spokesperson said in an email. They added that the agency is “committed to ensuring alleged misconduct involving CBP employees is thoroughly investigated.”

Not all Sikhs are vegetarians, but most of the initiated, or baptized, refrain from eating meat. Sikh temples, Singh explained, never serve meat. 

Rana Sodhi, a Sikh volunteer who frequently works with the Phoenix Welcome Center, estimated 99% of Sikhs who are baptized do not eat meat. Sodhi also said many Sikhs are raised without ever eating meat at all. 

“From generation to generation, they are vegetarians, so it’s a very tough situation,” he said.

Sodhi’s brother Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered near Phoenix four days after the 9/11 attacks after being profiled for wearing a turban. In honor of his brother, Sodhi dedicates his time to educating the public about the Sikh faith.

The volunteer with Casa Alitas also said they’d heard reports of Border Patrol agents refusing Muslim migrants halal meals while in custody, a period that can range anywhere from a few hours to over a week. Islamic dietary practices designate foods that are halal, meaning lawful or permitted.

“Just as federal law requires CBP to stop confiscating turbans, it also requires officials to provide religiously compliant diets for those who need them,” Pineda said. “We encourage the Commissioner to extend his investigation to the Tucson sector and ensure that the rights of migrants are respected.”

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...