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ACLU says Border Patrol agents are forcing Sikh asylum seekers to remove turbans at the border

In a letter sent to Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus this week, the ACLU of Arizona says Border Patrol agents in Yuma are confiscating religious turbans worn by Sikh asylum seekers. 

Sikhism is a South Asian religion from the Punjab region. In a story this week co-published the Intercept and AZ Luminaria, young Sikh asylum seekers detail how they were forced to remove and throw away their turbans once they came before Border Patrol agents.

Vanessa Pineda, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Arizona, says many Sikhs are fleeing religious persecution from elsewhere.

“And then to be met upon entry into the United States seeking freedom of religion they’re forced to throw away a really, a core tenet or principle of their religion,” she said.  

Pineda says the ACLU and partners at the International Rescue Committee in Phoenix has documented more than 50 cases of turban removals in the last two months alone. She says the letter is the latest effort to address those reports, which violate religious freedom practices and Customs and Border Protections own policies. The group has also documented other instances of migrants being forced to abandon property at the Yuma border. 

In a statement, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said the issue of turban removals was raised in June and steps were taken to address it. He said an internal investigation would look into the matter. 

Jasdeep Singh Brar, a Sikh activist based in California who volunteers at the Arizona border, says seeing turbans removed is deeply upsetting, but he has seen and heard of similar issues before. He says he hopes these incidents open up a larger discussion about the treatment of Sikhs and other asylum seekers at the border. 

“I’d hope my community would ask questions about why there are these people desperately crossing at these specific sites, trying to come into the U.S. and why more attention needs to be brought upon border policy,” he said. “Not just thinking about Sikhs being able to practice their faith, but the means of which they had to cross the border to begin with.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include AZ Luminaria as a co-publisher of the original investigation.

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.