Less than two weeks after the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection promised to investigate Arizona Border Patrol agents for violating their own policies — confiscating Sikh asylum-seekers’ turbans and trashing the sacred garb — a coalition of human-rights groups and Congressional leaders are doubling down to demand public accountability.
Despite CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus’ public promises on Aug. 3 that his agency would investigate, the violations continue. The national Sikh Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona told Arizona Luminaria they are aware of at least 12 new cases of turban confiscation this month alone.
“By the time asylum-seekers arrive at our borders, they have traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles to escape from violence and persecution. CBP agents should be taking special care not to compound their trauma,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, told Arizona Luminaria.
Castro, former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, joins the ranks of 22 other members of Congress — some twice in less than a month — calling for an immediate end to the practice and public accountability on Border Patrol actions when handling religious and other vital personal items.
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Many Sikh migrants arriving in the U.S. are seeking asylum because of religious persecution in India. They honor their faith by keeping uncut hair and beards, as well as a turban to cover their hair, among other sacred practices. The turban has deep spiritual significance, and being forced to remove it can be traumatizing.
“It’s very humiliating if someone takes it away,” Rana Sodhi, a Sikh leader and activist in Phoenix said. “It’s like you’re being violated.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said that Border Patrol’s violations of the rights of Sikh migrants legally seeking asylum are representative of longstanding abuses of power within the agency.
“All these festering issues get overwritten because everybody starts screaming about the border and the invasion, and so these go into the background,” said the 10-term congressman seeking re-election in November. “I don’t think they’re background issues. Border Patrol is the largest law enforcement agency with the least amount of accountability in the country. And that’s the problem.”
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.
Outcry sparks investigation
Arizona Luminaria obtained exclusive documentation of the confiscations and co-published a report on Aug. 2 with The Intercept on the initial Yuma Border Patrol violations.
The next day, Magnus, the CBP commissioner and Tucson’s former police chief, said “an internal investigation has been opened to address this matter.”
“Our expectation is that CBP employees treat all migrants we encounter with respect,” he said.
Initial reporting and an Aug. 1 letter from the ACLU to CBP estimated that there were 64 cases of turban confiscations in the Yuma area this year.
In follow-up reporting based on interviews with whistleblowers, however, Arizona Luminaria found Border Patrol agents in Tucson, as well as the original Yuma sector, have allegedly confiscated and trashed hundreds of sacred turbans belonging to Sikh asylum-seekers. Whistleblowers also said that agents are refusing Sikh migrants their religiously-required vegetarian diet, threatening them that they can “starve” if they don’t want to eat what they are served.
On Aug. 11, Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., told Arizona Luminaria “They’ve dealt with it,” referring to Border Patrol. Kelly was attending a press conference with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg
There was “obviously some confusion,” Kelly said, adding “I don’t expect it to be an issue anymore.”
That same day, however, three men arrived at the Phoenix Welcome Center without their turbans on, explaining that they were confiscated and discarded after they turned themselves in to Border Patrol, according to ACLU. The following day, another Sikh asylum-seeker arrived at the Welcome Center complaining of the same religious-rights violation.
Kelly did not respond to repeated requests for clarification.
The Sikh Coalition and ACLU also said that an interim guidance has been released by CBP to address the violations related to confiscation of turbans and religious headwear. The organizations have asked to review the new guidance, and have yet to be provided the information. According to a recent CBP directive, the agency must publicly release policy changes.
The May directive is sweeping and could offer a rare flicker of light into an agency that has long preferred operating outside of the public’s view. It mandates that:
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Directives requiring the Commissioner’s signature and CBP Policy Memorandums issued by the Office of the Commissioner, Policy Directorate (PD Memos) be released publicly unless they contain information that should not and/or cannot be released for personnel safety, privacy, or legal reasons.”
Besides religious objects, Border Patrol has been accused of discarding critical documents, including passports, IDs, and birth certificates, as well as paperwork that can be essential to verifying asylum claims.
Today, Democratic Reps. Grijalva, Castro and Judy Chu (Calif.) sent another letter to Magnus expressing their “grave concerns” about the confiscations.
“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,” the letter states.
CBP did not respond to requests for comment.
“I’m deeply concerned that the CBP Yuma and Tucson Sectors appear to have a pattern of discrimination against Sikh asylum-seekers,” Castro said, “and I urge Commissioner Magnus to stamp out this unacceptable behavior and ensure that agents who violate CBP policy are held fully accountable.”
ACLU has identified 84 cases of confiscation this year, but they caution that the number is an undercount. Their tally also does not include potentially hundreds of other cases identified by workers at Tucson’s Casa Alitas in an Arizona Luminaria report earlier this month.
The Tucson center that receives migrants released from Border Patrol custody did not respond to initial queries about the confiscations, but after the first article, three workers reached out to Arizona Luminaria, against company policy, saying that they had seen many similar cases.
One of the whistleblowers told Arizona Luminaria last week that they have continued to see cases, noting that one worker was scrambling to find fabric to turn into a makeshift turban. The workers requested anonymity when sharing their information, including documented cases of religious discrimination, as they feared compromising their relationship with the center.
After denying initial interviews and condemning any workers or volunteers speaking without approval, the director of Casa Alitas, Teresa Cavendish, said on Aug. 16 that, “We have seen turban confiscations in the past.” She didn’t specify a timeline.
The ACLU and the Sikh Coalition are specifically asking in an Aug. 15 joint press release addressed to Magnus, the CBP commissioner:
- What has DHS/CBP done to specifically remedy the concerns previously raised by advocates for a number of years? Is there a sense that personnel are deliberately ignoring policies and procedures, deficiencies in written policies, or barriers in the implementation of policies?
- Has DHS issued interim guidance to all Border Patrol stations and sectors regarding turban removals and denial of religious diets, recognizing the true prevalence of this issue borderwide is yet to be known? If not, does it plan to do so? When?
Grijalva’s days holding a seat in Tucson local politics span back to the 1970s. Serving 19 years as an Arizona Congressman, he’s seen changes in presidential administrations, in governorships, in his state, and in his Southern Arizona communities.
Watching the borderlands, where he was born and raised, become grounds for distorted political rhetoric, means parsing the bombast from reality, he said in an Aug. 13 interview. He remains a longtime critic of CBP human-rights abuses, fearing failed attempts at oversight in recent years have paved the way for the agency to become more insulated.
“We cited their own ethics, their own manuals, their own regulations, that these things are not what you’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “They’re not accountable to their own policies.”
That’s why, Grijalva said, the congressional coalition has doubled down on holding Magnus accountable to policing the agency he leads.
“These instances are not just taking place in the Yuma sector,” he said of violating Sikh migrants’ religious rights. “They’re happening all along the Southwest border. And with varying degrees of intensity and varying degrees of disclosure and transparency. So getting to the correct figures is always going to be a problem.”