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Feds reviewing confiscations of Sikh turbans, other religious clothing & papers by Border Patrol agents

Feds reviewing confiscations of Sikh turbans, other religious clothing & papers by Border Patrol agents

Agents in Arizona accused of throwing away personal & religious items, violating U.S. law & agency guidelines

  • Personal effects at a storage container at the Tucson Sector station in December 2014
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comPersonal effects at a storage container at the Tucson Sector station in December 2014
  • A Border Patrol agent opens a storage container holding dozens of personal items confiscated and held temporarily by the agency in December 2014.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA Border Patrol agent opens a storage container holding dozens of personal items confiscated and held temporarily by the agency in December 2014.

A federal watchdog will review how the Border Patrol handles personal property following reports that agents along the Arizona-Mexico border are confiscating and throwing away the turbans of Sikh men, as well as migrants' personal documents and other items.

While the seizure of turbans accelerated in recent months as the number of migrants from India increased in Yuma, the incidents follow years of controversy over how the agency handles personal effects.

In a Nov. 16 letter, the Government Accountability Office told U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva and other members of Congress the agency will "review matters relating to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's activities, policies, and procedures regarding the handling of personal property belonging to individuals in its custody."

The agency said it expects to begin work in January 2023.

Grijalva trumpeted the GAO's response, writing there were "numerous reports of CBP agents confiscating and discarding migrants’ personal documents such as passports, birth certificates, and other confidential documents necessary for asylum cases and religious property."

"We’re going to hold CBP’s accountable for their actions," Grijalva said. "Mishandling and mistreating sensitive belongings and documents, including those that may impact the outcome of an asylum claim, must stop. Oversight is urgently needed. I look forward to working with GAO as they ​careful​ly review ​and provide insight as to CBP's handling ​of personal property."

For months, Grijalva and other members of Congress have pushed for a review after the American Civil Liberties Union and dozens of other civil rights organizations criticized the actions of agents in the Yuma Sector.

One of two BP sectors that cover Arizona's border with Mexico, the Yuma Sector straddles the Colorado River and has become a major way point for asylum seekers who cross the U.S.-Mexico border, and turn themselves over to Border Patrol agents to seek protection in the U.S.  During the 2021 fiscal year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2022, Yuma Sector agents encountered around 310,000 people, largely single adults. Around 122,000 people arrived as families, including parents with children.

Of the 310,000 people, around 37,000 people were immediately deported to Mexico under Title 42—a controversial order from the Trump-era allowing agents to rapidly deport people if they traveled through a country with a significant number of COVID-19 cases. The remainder were either released to seek asylum in the U.S., or were prosecuted for entering the country without authorization under Title 8.

In August, the ACLU sent a letter to Chris Magnus, the head of CBP, informing him of "ongoing, serious religious-freedom violations in the Yuma Border Patrol Sector, where agents are confiscating turbans from Sikh individuals during asylum processing."  The ACLU told Magnus agents in the Yuma Sector confiscated turbans from at least 50 men who sought asylum in the U.S. and refused to return them.

Last week, Magnus resigned from the agency, and CBP is now led by Troy Miller, who served as the acting commissioner through 2021 before Magnus was confirmed by the Senate late last year.

"These practices blatantly violate federal law," wrote Noah Schramm, with the ACLU of Arizona. Schramm added the practice is "inconsistent with CBP’s own national standards and contrary to the agency’s non-discrimination policy."

Grijalva's request to the GAO included fellow Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the chair of the Homeland Security Committee, as well as U.S. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, a California Democrat who serves as the chairwoman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation and Operation.

Magnus later told agents in an unpublished memo to return turbans to migrants after a search for "officer safety," if the person is classified as a non-threat, and there are "no other risk factors" present, including a potential suicide risk. Magnus told agents to track accommodations in their database known as e3DM, and if there is a "safety or security concern" the turban, or other item could be removed and secured "as property" until the person was transferred or released.

Critiques from 2014

For years, CBP has been criticized for how it handles personal property. In 2014, the humanitarian group No More Deaths said the agency regularly deported people into Mexico without their belongings, including cash and personal documents. And, several years ago, the artist Tom Kiefer accumulated hundreds of items while working as a janitor at the Border Patrol station in Ajo, Arizona and began making art from the discarded items.

Other items include documents people could use to win their asylum cases, as well as IDs, and vital phone numbers. 

Along with the ACLU, the Washington Office on Latin America said that by mid-August, there were at least 13 instances when agents seized documents, and 28 times when they failed  to return personal belongings. The Nogales-based Kino Border Initiative told WOLA agents took the belongings of one man, including pesos, a chain with a diamond ring, a bible, keys, his cellphone and his IDs and birth certificate and deported him to Nogales, Sonora without returning those items in August.

In another case, WOLA said an activist in Texas found x-rays for a 6-year-old boy tossed in the dirt beside the border wall.

"The pattern includes agents’ confiscation of items vital to religious freedom, like rosary beads or the 64 or more turbans taken from Sikhs in Arizona so far this year," wrote Adam Isacson, with WOLA. "Some unreturned items have monetary value, like cash, jewelry, and mobile phones. Some have sentimental value, like photos, small heirlooms, and children’s stuffed animals and dolls. Some are important for health and well-being, like prescriptions and medicines. And some are essential for navigating daily life as a U.S.-based asylum seeker, like identity documents, proof of persecution, and vital phone numbers."

'Grave concerns'

In August, Grijalva and nearly two dozen other members of Congress pushed for answers from Magnus and Tae Johnson, who serves as the acting director of U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That letter went unanswered, Grijalva said. He sent a follow-up letter "demanding accountability after continued reports of turban confiscations" and expressing "grave concerns" regarding reports—including a story that 64 men had their turbans confiscated and discarded by Yuma Sector agents—the practice was continuing.

Grijalva said he was concerned agents in the Tucson Sector, which borders the Yuma Sector and runs to the New Mexico border, are also throwing away turbans.

"Such actions constitute a violation of multiple Department of Homeland Security policies and federal laws that protect religious freedom and an individual’s personal property while under custody," Grijalva wrote. "Therefore, CBP must immediately stop confiscating religious articles of faith," he wrote, adding the agency was failing to follow its own guidelines, known as the 2015 CBP National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention and Search, or TEDS.

Grijalva quoted the Sikh Coalition, who also criticized the agency, noting that discarded the men's turbans is "an egregious violation of an individual’s religious freedom and goes against the values of our nation."

Sikhs are required to wear some external articles of faith, including a steel bracelet known as a kara, uncut hear and beards, known as kesh, and a turban, known as a dastaar to cover their hair.  "These articles of faith distinguish a Sikh, have deep spiritual significance, and are mandated by Sikhs’ religious traditions and should not be forcibly removed or discarded,” the Sikh Coalition wrote in August. 

The coalition also said CBP has refused to provide meals to migrants "that comply with their religious beliefs."

"Tucson border officials also are denying Sikh migrants vegetarian meals; some who have complained have reportedly been ordered to eat meat or starve," the group said. "These practices blatantly violate the law and are contrary to the fundamental religious- freedom principles on which our country was founded."

"These concerns are not new: many of the undersigned organizations have notified the Department of Homeland Security of these egregious and illegal practices over a period of years," they wrote. "We are deeply troubled that CBP has repeatedly failed to take remedial action in response to these complaints, allowing border officials to continue flouting the law with apparent impunity." 

As Schramm noted, in March 2019 the ACLU tried to marshal the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, as well as the Office of Inspector General, to investigate claims the agency was disposing of turbans and other religious items. In September 2020, the ACLU said the practice was continuing.

Agency outlines polices

In 2019, Rodney Scott, chief of the Border Patrol during the Trump administration, sent out a memo reminding agents how to handle seized personal effects, including what "constitutes contraband and a health hazard." This could include knives or other sharp objects, as well as pesticides and other chemicals, lighters, as well as food and "biohazards."

"Wet moldy items," including clothing, can also be confiscated, the agency said.

The agency "experienced an unprecedented number of apprehensions," Scott began, adding "managing detainee personal effects presented significant challenges along the southwest border," he wrote. This "provided an opportunity to explore more efficient means of managing detainee property," he said.

The memo, called an Internal Operating Procedure, said those in custody "must willingly and voluntarily dispose" of items considered "unfit for storage," however, items that can be stored must be retained by the agency for at least 30 days. If a person is transferred to another agency, released, or repatriated to another country, any "personal effects inventoried" should go with them.

CBP officials told the ACLU and the International Rescue Committee turbans were taken only when they "pose a security risk" and agents declined to store turbans when they were wet or damaged, Schramm wrote. John Modlin, the head of the Tucson Sector, told the IRC he "raised concerns" with Yuma Sector officials, who said they were "retraining" processing officials.

The organization reminded Magnus and other CBP officials that the confiscations not only violated TEDS, but also the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—a 1993 law passed by Congress intended to keep the federal government from adding a "substantially burden" to a person's exercise of religion" unless there's a "compelling interest."

"Even assuming that officials have a compelling interest in inspecting turbans and religious headwear for contraband or for other safety reasons, confiscating the turbans and refusing to return them is an extreme and unnecessary approach. Rather than forcing Sikh individuals to remove their turbans, officers could gently pat down the turbans or use a security wand to check them."

"If there is a reason for a particular turban to be removed, the individual could be permitted to remove it himself for inspection and then allowed to immediately retie it once any concerns are resolved," Schramm wrote, adding that other institutions with "comparable (or even greater) security concerns explicitly authorize religious headwear, including turbans," including the Federal Bureau of Prisons and ICE.

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