US authorities are investigating complaints that the religious rights of dozens of Sikh asylum seekers were violated recently when their turbans were confiscated by Border Patrol agents in the Yuma, Arizona area, officials said Wednesday. responsible.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sent a letter U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus on Monday said the organization had documented nearly 50 cases since June in which officers confiscated turbans, calling the seizures “serious and continuing violations of religious freedom”.

Magnus said Wednesday that CBP takes the charges seriously.

“We expect CBP employees to treat all migrants we encounter with respect,” Magnus said in a statement. “An internal investigation has been opened to deal with this matter.”

CBP officials in the agency’s Yuma sector have seen a historic influx of asylum seekers from countries around the world, including India in recent months. Nearly 10,000 Indian nationals were arrested by officers in Yuma in fiscal year 2022, which began Oct. 1, according to the most recent CBP data, compared to 1,834 in all of fiscal year 2021.

According to the ACLU letter, many Indian migrants are Sikhs from the Punjab region who came to the United States seeking religious freedom. “The Sikh faith is the fifth largest organized religion in the world,” it reads, adding that there are approximately 30 million Sikhs worldwide and more than 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States.

“Many Sikhs wear an outer uniform to unify and bind them to the beliefs of the religion and to always remind them of their commitment to Sikh teachings,” the ACLU said. “When a Sikh ties a turban, the turban ceases to be just a piece of cloth and becomes one and the same with the Sikh’s head. It is a religious commitment without which many Sikhs may feel they have ceased to be Sikhs.

CBP officials said they recently reminded Border Patrol supervisors that agency policies require officers to exercise caution when handling “personal property of a religious nature.”

Migrants in CBP custody along the border are generally required to dispose of personal items such as backpacks, food, or extra clothing. Officers also order them to remove their shoelaces, which are considered a safety hazard to detained migrants. Valuables or important items that are not considered contraband are supposed to be kept and returned to people when they are released or deported.

CBP policy also directs officers to “remain aware of an individual’s religious beliefs while performing enforcement action in a dignified and respectful manner,” according to the agency.

The ACLU’s letter to Magnus, reported by the Intercept on Tuesday, said the confiscation of the turbans was part of a larger “well-documented and recurring practice by officers in the Yuma Border Patrol sector of forcing migrants apprehended to throw away almost all their personal belongings”. property before processing.

At Yuma’s most popular crossing point, the Border Patrol has placed large trash cans where officers tell migrants to throw away most of their belongings. The volume of trash is so great that a Post reporter met a man in June who drives through Mexico every night to rummage through belongings for valuables.

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The ACLU of Arizona said immigrant advocates raised concerns about the confiscation of religious head coverings in meetings with Homeland Security officials in June. CBP officials told them that items were only taken if they were deemed a security risk, and that turbans were returned unless they were “wet or damaged.”

Reports from immigrant advocates indicate otherwise, the ACLU told Magnus in its letter, adding that “officials appeared to ignore their obligations under CBP policy and federal law to protect religious freedom rights. asylum seekers and, when informed that the seizure of turbans had increased markedly in recent months, they had no viable explanation for it.

The CBP statement released Wednesday does not say whether the turbans were discarded, or whether the examples occurred when Sikh migrants were arrested along the border or upon arrival at CBP detention centers along the border. the border.

The ACLU of Arizona said it has not received reports of turban confiscations in other areas of the border outside of the Yuma area.

Indian migrants going to Yuma usually first arrive in Mexico and then travel to the border town of Los Algodones along the banks of the Colorado River. The smugglers order them to ford and cross one of the many unfinished gaps in the 30-foot border wall.

The Department of Homeland Security said last week it would close loopholes at an illegal entry point in the Yuma sector, citing the security risks of crossing the river.

The most popular opening is where the barrier ends in tribal lands along the Cocopah Reservation. This area, which appears frequently in photos of migrants queuing along the base of the border wall, will remain open, as tribal authorities have not allowed CBP to build the barrier on their land.