Border Patrol Receives New Orders Not to Trash Sikh Turbans After Mounting Complaints of Disrespectful Encounters

A rear-view shot of an elderly Sikh having finally arrived in the US.Along the border, agents have been removing, confiscating, and trashing turbans from Sikh migrants and asylum seekers.

Growing tensions in India have pushed thousands of vulnerable families to flee their home country and seek asylum in the United States. Sikh, Christian, and LGBT communities are facing more and more discrimination and persecution from Hindu extremists in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled India.

So, left with no other choice, many are making the difficult journey to the United States. Nevertheless, officials with the ACLU Arizona, alongside the Sikh Coalition, have flagged that even here, Sikh asylum seekers are often experiencing harassment at the border.

Growing Discrimination at the United States Border

Multiple reports, especially across Yuma and the Tucson border, have shown that Border Patrol agents are confiscating and trashing sacred turbans from Sikh asylum seekers.

Traditionally, wearing a turban is one of five key sacred practices that Sikhs follow. Imbued with deep spiritual significance, being forced to remove the sacred head garment is akin to being humiliated and exposed.

Nevertheless, after initially demanding Sikh individuals remove their turbans for search at the border, agents have often refused to give them back. On top of that, whistleblowers working with a Tuscon agency that aids migrants and refugees also shared accounts of Border Patrol agents verbally harassing Sikh asylum seekers and denying them their religiously required diets.

A Terrible Example of Discrimination

For one man, who requested to remain anonymous, this discriminatory treatment reached a head. Today, he’s being represented by Deepak Ahluwalia, a Sikh attorney in Fresno, California, who has been representing Sikh asylum-seekers for years.

Ahluwalia shared details from the case with news outlet Arizona Luminaria. It began on Aug.3 when the Sikh asylum-seeker crossed the border with his wife and two young children. After turning themselves into Border Patrol, they waited more than 12 hours at the border wall before being bused to a nearby station for processing.

They’d waited all day in the sun, taking turns carrying their two young children, ages 2 and 4. At this point, the man was feeling weak and ill and was struggling to breathe.

He was given water and allowed to sit down while two officers (one of which was described as “rude and aggressive”) ordered him to remove his turban.

The officers took it off, took photos of him with his hair loose, and confiscated the turban. They pressured him into signing paperwork he didn’t understand and accused him of pretending to be sick. Then they pulled him to his feet, pushed him against a wall, and handcuffed him.

His wife began crying, and as he tried to console his family, speaking to them in Punjabi, an officer told him, “You need to speak fucking English.”

He was then escorted to a solitary confinement cell, where he was left alone for hours, throwing up two to three times and banging on the door for help. No one came.

After three hours, he was released without any medical consultation, and though he asked multiple times, his turban was never returned. Days later, at a welcome center in Tucson, he tested positive for COVID-19.

New Ordinances Require Border Patrol Agents to Return Confiscated Turbans

In response to national outcry and pressure from lawmakers and advocacy groups, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has issued new interim guidance to prevent agents from ‘unnecessarily removing, confiscating and trashing the sacred turbans of Sikh asylum-seekers.’

An excerpt from the guidance reads:

Migrants and property encountered in the field, including turbans, will be searched by agents for officer safety. Any migrant or property that enters a USBP facility is also searched for contraband. If the migrant is classified as “non-threat” and no other risk factors are present (e.g., suicide risk), the turban will be returned to the migrant at the conclusion of the search. 

That said, the agency initially delayed making these orders public, and Border Patrol repeatedly refused to acknowledge that the guidance had been issued, despite a recent CBP directive that requires all policy changes ‘be released publicly.’

Moreover, the Sikh Coalition feels the CBP should go further in protecting individuals from discrimination. “More must be done to correct the forced removal and trashing of Sikh turbans by Border Patrol agents, and individual officers must be held accountable for these egregious actions,” says Attariwala, senior policy and advocacy manager for the Sikh Coalition.

Get Help Defending Your Legal Rights With a U.S. Immigration Attorney

If you are facing discrimination or challenges in regard to admission into the United States, your treatment at the border, or the treatment of a family member currently being held in a U.S. facility, do not hesitate to reach out to an immigration lawyer from Singh Ahluwalia Attorneys at Law. We are available to assist, and we are dedicated to fighting for your rights to seek out your dreams, free from persecution.

Call (559) 878-4958 or contact us online to schedule your confidential case review with no obligation.