YUMA, Ariz. — Today, in a letter sent to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, 162 civil rights, immigration, religious, advocacy, and other organizations joined the Sikh Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona (ACLU-AZ), and the American Civil Liberties Union in calling for an end to the mistreatment of religious migrants by U.S. border officials in Arizona and at other border-crossing points.
In June and July, the ACLU received reports that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents in Arizona’s Yuma Sector have been confiscating Sikh migrants’ turbans and other possessions and throwing them in the trash. Subsequent reports also revealed that some Sikh migrants in Arizona’s Tucson Sector are being denied vegetarian meals and ordered by border officials to eat meat or starve. Based on previous complaints submitted to DHS, advocates believe these unlawful practices are also occurring at other border-crossing points outside of Arizona. Per public reporting, an investigation is currently underway.
The organizations’ letter states in part:
“For years, advocates and the media have repeatedly raised concerns about the seizure of religious headwear and other articles of faith, as well as the denial of religious diets by CBP. These practices not only affect Sikh individuals, but they also harm Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian migrants, among others. Furthermore, the unnecessary and cruel confiscation of migrants’ personal belongings extends beyond religious items … Time after time, DHS officials have assured the public and stakeholders that they take these concerns seriously, yet the violations continue. Alarmingly, these abuses have gone on for so long that they appear to have become standard operating procedure at the border, supplanting CBP’s own rules—which require religious sensitivity and the safeguarding of migrants’ personal property. It is now time for immediate and decisive action.”
The letter is the latest in a series of actions taken by advocates to address this urgent issue. The Sikh Coalition, ACLU-AZ, and ACLU sent letters of complaint to CBP in early August and have since continued to press senior DHS and other government leaders to respond in a transparent and comprehensive way. The letter urges DHS to adopt “an unambiguous statement of policy prohibiting this misconduct and detailing strict enforcement against any official or individual who violates this policy.” It underscores the need for DHS to “undertake a full-scale reckoning of CBP’s and other agencies’ brazen disregard for migrants’ religious freedom and other rights.”
The following quotes are attributable to the legal and policy experts working on this issue:
“Sikh migrants are among the most vulnerable individuals coming to the United States — in many cases, fleeing a well-founded fear of religious persecution in their home countries,” said Sim J. Singh Attariwala, Sikh Coalition senior policy and advocacy manager. “To have their religious and other rights immediately violated by CBP officers is a cruel irony, and this misconduct should not be tolerated.”
“The violation of migrants’ religious rights and confiscation of their property has been an ongoing issue for far too long, and we are grateful to our partner organizations on the ground for once again calling attention to this issue,” said Noah Schramm, border policy strategist at the ACLU of Arizona. “It is increasingly clear that this problem is rooted in both the misconduct of individual officers and a troubling institutional culture within CBP.”
“All migrants deserve to be treated with basic human dignity, including respect for their religious rights and personal possessions,” said Jonathan Blazer, director of border strategies at the ACLU. “More than 160 organizations are sending a clear message to the DHS that verbal assurances are not enough. We need a transparent investigation into why this practice has continued and an immediate policy change to stop it permanently.”
Finally, the Sikh Coalition, ACLU-AZ, and ACLU are grateful to Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), and Judy Chu (D-Calif.) for also sending a letter to Secretary Mayorkas last week demanding answers and accountability. We will continue to provide updates on this issue as our advocacy with government officials moves forward.
For more information about years-long efforts to protect the religious rights, civil liberties, and human dignity of Sikhs and other migrants at the southern border, please reach out to the organizational contacts listed above.
The letter is online here: https://www.aclu.org/letter/letter-dhs-secretary-mayorkas-ending-border-officials-religious-freedom-violations\.