The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Fellowship Southwest, Baptist Joint Committee and 160 other civil rights and faith groups are demanding American border agents be forced to stop confiscating religious items and other personal property from migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
In an Aug. 22 letter to Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the organizations referenced recent reports of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents routinely seizing and throwing away the turbans of Sikh migrants and denying them vegetarian meals after crossing the border from Mexico.
“These practices not only affect Sikh individuals, but they also harm Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Christian migrants, among others,” the letter states. “Furthermore, the unnecessary and cruel confiscation of migrants’ personal belongings extends beyond religious items: CBP officials frequently force migrants, including those seeking asylum, to discard nearly all of their belongings, including important medications, identity documents, records relevant to individuals’ asylum cases, and items of sentimental value.”
These practices are a blatant violation of border patrol policies and American law and religious freedom values, according to the letter also signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sikh Coalition, Refugees International and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
“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,” the letter continues.
Media reports and official complaints have identified border patrol sectors in Yuma and Tucson, Ariz., as “flouting the law with apparent impunity” by routinely confiscating the possessions of Sikhs and other asylum seekers.
“In addition, Tucson border officials also are denying Sikh migrants vegetarian meals; some who have complained have reportedly been ordered to eat meat or starve. These practices blatantly violate the law and are contrary to the fundamental religious freedom principles on which our country was founded,” the letter says.
A few days before the advocacy and religious groups sent their letter, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, chair of the Asian Pacific American Caucus, wrote to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials urging that the agency stop selectively targeting Sikhs for mistreatment at the southern border.
“We are greatly alarmed by continuing reports that people are being indiscriminately forced to give up their religious items and other possessions — which are then trashed in many cases. According to multiple entities working directly with Sikh migrants, communication and cooperation with CBP officials specific to this issue has been difficult, making it even more urgent to address this situation as soon as possible,” the representatives said in their letter.
The message also explained why Sikhs are pursuing asylum claims: “As you may be aware, many of the Sikh individuals making their way to the United States border are seeking asylum on the basis of religious persecution.”
In a separate statement released by Castro’s congressional office, Sikh Coalition Legal Director Amrith Kaur Aakre said the mistreatment, initially reported earlier this summer, has continued well into August. Sikhs are a monotheistic religious group that originated in what is now India and Pakistan.
“We continue to demand a full accounting of how the seizure of turbans and other such misconduct still persists at various border entries and what steps will be taken by the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that it stops permanently,” Aakre said.
The Interfaith Immigration Coalition released statements from immigration advocates, including its own interim chair, Katie Adams.
“It is entirely unacceptable for a nation that has prided itself in its religious freedoms to be responsible for such an egregious violation of the religious rights of newcomers. As interfaith advocates that are allies with their Sikh siblings, we demand accountability for these actions by CBP and call for a renewed commitment to welcome one another with love and respect, as all of our faith traditions teach us,” Adams said.
Jonathan Blazer, director of border strategies for the ACLU, demanded a formal inquiry into Border Patrol violations.
“All migrants deserve to be treated with basic human dignity, including respect for their religious rights and personal possessions. 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,” he said.
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