The Price of Seeking Asylum – How CBP is Trashing Migrants’ Most Cherished and Essential Belongings

By working with partner organizations, the ACLU of Arizona has raised the alarm on how CBP agents are unlawfully forcing migrants to abandon their personal property at the border.

Early this fall, we kicked off a united advocacy push with several of our organizational partners when we exposed how Sikh migrants at our southern border were being treated by immigration officials. In what we described as a “reprehensible practice,” the Yuma Border Patrol sector had been confiscating and discarding turbans worn by migrants of the Sikh faith, stripping more than 60 Sikh men of this sacred piece of headwear.  

This is a serious religious freedom violation, and it is contrary to both federal law and CBP’s own non-discrimination policy — so we acted swiftly and sent a letter to CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus decrying the unjust seizures. The practice was so blatantly egregious that it sparked outrage and coverage nationally, eliciting mentions in the Washington Post and CNN. Under heavy scrutiny, Commissioner Magnus responded with an investigation and some initial stakeholder engagement. Yet the turban confiscations have ultimately continued; so we, alongside our national counterparts, continue to work closely with other advocates like the Sikh Coalition to ensure that Commissioner Magnus keeps his promise to end the confiscations once and for all.  

But more must be done.  

While the Commissioner has been clear with us about his intent to stop the seizure of Sikh articles of faith, he has been much more reluctant to address Border Patrol’s broader carelessness for migrants’ personal belongings. Advocates have long decried how Border Patrol routinely forces migrants to give up their possessions upon entering custody; and some of the recent examples from Arizona are nothing short of appalling: 

  • Migrants being forced to throw away bibles and prayer rugs that have been in their families for generations, 
  • The seizure of vital medications for conditions such as HIV, epilepsy, and diabetes,  
  • Elderly individuals being forced to abandon their wheelchairs, walkers, and canes,  
  • CBP confiscating medical documents relevant to a person’s immigration case, copies of birth certificates, legal evidence of asylum claims, and family photos.  

Many migrants seek asylum after enduring unimaginable violence and hardship. For our government to then seize and trash the few belongings they carry is an unnecessary act of cruelty. That’s why we’ve sent another letter to Commissioner Magnus that uncovers this pattern of disregard for migrants’ personal belongings, and by extension, their humanity. Such oppressive policies are unjustifiable – especially given the vast budgetary and operational resources afforded to CBP. If the Biden administration intends to fulfill its promise to treat migrants with dignity, it can begin by simply letting them keep their possessions.