Border Patrol threw away ‘hundreds’ of Sikh migrants’ turbans and told them they could ‘starve’: report

The Border Patrol, who has been aware of the allegations since June, said earlier this week it was opening an internal investigation into the allegations

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Saturday 06 August 2022 19:15 BST
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The mistreatment of Sikh migrants at the US-Mexico border is reportedly much more widespread than previously thought.

US Customs and Border Patrol agents in multiple sectors have allegedly thrown hundreds of sacred turbans belonging to Sikh border-crossers in the trash, and denied migrants religiously mandated vegetarian meals, instead consigning them to eat apple juice and crackers or telling them they could “starve,” according to an investigation from the Arizona Luminaria, citing unnamed border aid workers familiar with the mistreatment.

“One Sikh man, when I handed him a turban to cover his hair started crying and kissed the fabric,” one individual told the outlet, recalling “a group of vegetarian Sikhs said they were living off apple juice and crackers for seven days.”

Aid workers have taken to buying lengths of cloth themselves so migrants can make themselves new turbans.

The new allegations join previous complaints about how the Border Patrol has treated Sikh migrants.

Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote to the agency, highlighting “serious religious-freedom violations” in at least 64 instances at the Yuma border sector in the last two months, according to the legal organisation.

"By confiscating and failing to return Sikh individuals’ turbans, CBP directly interferes with their religious practice and forces them to violate their religious beliefs," the ACLU wrote in a 1 August letter to the agency, pointing to the Border Patrol’s official policy that officers "remain cognizant of an individual’s religious beliefs while accomplishing an enforcement action in a dignified and respectful manner."

Sikh migrants, many of whom are fleeing what they see as rising anti-Sikh sentiment under the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, described humiliating treatment: “They told me to take off my turban. I know a little English, and I said, ‘It’s my religion.’ But they insisted,” one man told The Intercept, which first reported on the ACLU letter. Agents even insisted on cutting the man’s traditional Sikh underwear, ostensibly for security reasons.

“I felt so bad,” the man said.

The Border Patrol said earlier this week it was opening an internal investigation into the allegations and was taking unspecified steps “to address the situation.”

“Our expectation is that CBP employees treat all migrants we encounter with respect,” CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said in an emailed statement earlier this week.

In June, an ombudsman from the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol, visited a facility in Phoenix and was alerted to complaints about religious mistreatment, according to the ACLU.

"We’re talking about Sikh migrants specifically who are fleeing their countries because of religious persecution...making a very traumatic journey to the United States, and upon entering are then forced to remove a sacred piece of their religion, a core tenet of their belief system," Vanessa Pineda, an immigrants’ rights staff attorney for the ACLU of Arizona, told CNN.

Such reporting indicates that the agency has been aware of the problem for weeks without any apparent change.

“We take allegations of this nature very seriously,” the Border Patrol told The Independent in a statement.

It declined to answer what specific steps were taken to remedy the mistreatment claims, or when the internal investigation would be finished.

Last year, The Independent reported that the first person killed in a post-9/11 hate crime was a Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi, who owned a gas station in Arizona. Sodhi was shot by a racist gunman on 15 September, 2001,  the same day the business owner donated to a 9/11 relief fund.

Since then, Sikhs have been the target of other hate incidents, and have also been singled out for placement in immigration databases and invasive screening at US airports.

This article was amended on August 9, to attribute claims of anti-Sikh sentiment under the BJP to individuals fleeing India.

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