The American Civil Liberties released a letter this week calling for Border Patrol agents to stop forcing Sikh migrants to remove their turbans, a practice reported more than 50 times by advocates in Yuma, Arizona.
“CBP’s actions humiliate Sikh migrants as they flee their homes seeking asylum,” ACLU Arizona communications director Marcela Taracena said. “It is just one of the most egregious examples of how this agency’s disposal of migrants’ personal property creates a dehumanizing experience for all migrants seeking protection in the United States.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a request for comment. Commissioner Chris Magnus told The Washington Post on Wednesday that he is taking the allegations seriously and that an internal investigation has been opened.
“Our expectation is that CBP employees treat all migrants we encounter with respect,” Magnus told The Post in a statement.
In its letter, the ACLU accuses CBP of violating migrants’ right to religious freedom, as well as the agency’s own anti-discrimination policy, taking religious headwear from asylum-seekers and never returning it. The letter notes similar reports have been made by Muslim women whose hijabs have been stripped during Border Patrol processes.
“Despite numerous contacts about this issue, to our knowledge, no meaningful investigation has occurred,” the letter said. “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.”
CBP’s anti-discrimination policy contends that officers should “remain cognizant of an individual’s religious beliefs while accomplishing an enforcement action in a dignified and respectful manner.” The ACLU says that by failing to do that, the agency is extending the religious persecution people might have faced in their home countries.
Violence against Sikh Americans has captured a national audience in recent years, with advocates pointing to the demonization of the turban post-9/11. In April 2021, a gunman at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis killed four Sikh workers. Since then, New York City has had several attacks on Sikh residents, many of which involved their being stripped of their turbans.
“There is simply no excuse for refusing Sikhs the right to wear their turbans,” the ACLU’s letter said. “Robust protections for religious exercise are crucial in settings where individuals are in government custody. … Yuma officials must cease their practice of confiscating turbans or any other religious headwear.”
Sakshi Venkatraman is a reporter for NBC Asian America.