(NEW YORK) — Government officials are investigating claims that Sikh migrants had their turbans confiscated and discarded by authorities as they sought asylum along the southern border, according to a statement Wednesday by Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus.
“We take allegations of this nature very seriously,” Magnus said in a statement to ABC News. “Our expectation is that CBP employees treat all migrants we encounter with respect. An internal investigation has been opened to address this matter.”
Magnus said the agency immediately began taking steps to address the allegations after they were raised in June.
The alleged civil rights violations were compiled in a letter sent Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona in which the group said they documented 47 cases of asylum-seekers in Yuma, Arizona, having their turbans taken and never returned over the past two months.
“Federal courts have repeatedly held that denying a person of faith the right to wear religious headgear imposes a substantial burden on their religious exercise,” the ACLU wrote. “By confiscating and failing to return Sikh individuals’ turbans, CBP directly interferes with their religious practice and forces them to violate their religious beliefs.”
Broadly speaking, border Patrol agents routinely confiscate personal items from those suspected of crossing the border illegally. Any items deemed to be a safety risk, including shoelaces, are taken when an individual is brought into CBP custody.
Agents are instructed to safeguard and take particular care of “items of a religious nature,” according to CBP.
“These articles of faith have deep spiritual significance, as they signify an individual’s commitment to Sikhism and its highest ideals of love and service to humanity,” the ACLU wrote in its letter this week. “Unlike some other faiths, where only the clergy are in uniform, most initiated Sikhs believe they are required to wear external articles of faith.”
The cases brought forward by the ACLU were first documented by the International Rescue Committee of Arizona, a refugee resettlement organization. The ACLU said IRC volunteers have worked to collect turbans from the local Sikh community in Yuma to serve as replacements.
“Unfortunately, this is not a long-term solution because of the sheer number of turbans needed,” the ACLU said.
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