A US Border Patrol agent checks the passports of immigrants after they crossed the border with Mexico on May 18, 2022, in Yuma, Arizona. The ACLU alleges that agents in the Border Patrol's Yuma sector have been taking turbans from Sikh asylum-seekers.
CNN  — 

Border Patrol agents in Arizona have confiscated the turbans of dozens of Sikh men seeking asylum in the United States, violating their civil rights and government policies, the ACLU says in a letter calling for an end to the practice.

Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union decried what they said were unlawful and “serious religious-freedom violations” and asked US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus to investigate.

The letter, sent August 1 and first reported by The Intercept and nonprofit newsroom Arizona Luminaria, alleges that 64 such instances have been reported in the Border Patrol’s Yuma sector so far this year – mostly in the past two months – by Sikh asylum seekers who were released from custody and sought help at a welcome center in Phoenix.

“This is reprehensible,” the ACLU of Arizona said in a tweet Wednesday. “The faith and dignity of Sikh migrants at the border must be respected.”

The turban is a symbol of faith and religious tradition considered sacred by Sikhs.

Sikhism is the fifth-largest world religion, according to the Sikh Coalition, and there are more than 500,000 Sikh Americans.

Devout Sikh men don’t cut their hair or shave because they believe you must maintain your body in the way that God created you. Turbans are worn as a way to keep heads covered out of respect when in public and in religious spaces.

“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’s letter says, noting the importance of the agency’s policy requiring officers to “remain cognizant of an individual’s religious beliefs while accomplishing an enforcement action in a dignified and respectful manner.”

“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,” says Vanessa Pineda, immigrants’ rights staff attorney for the ACLU of Arizona.

Partner organizations who are working directly with migrants reported the uptick in Sikh asylum-seekers’ turbans being taken, Pineda said. The practice is “dehumanizing and humiliating,” she told CNN.

CBP says it’s opened an internal investigation

The CBP commissioner told CNN in a statement that an investigation is underway.

“We take allegations of this nature very seriously,” Magnus said in a statement released to CNN. “This issue was raised in June and steps were immediately taken to address the situation. Our expectation is that CBP employees treat all migrants we encounter with respect. An internal investigation has been opened to address this matter.”

The agency says it’s provided additional guidance to field leadership “reiterating the expectation that personnel exercise particular care when handling property items of a religious nature.” It also says the agency’s procedures allow its personnel to discard items “that pose a clear health or safety hazard.”

In their letter, the ACLU representatives said they saw little evidence of concrete action after the issue was raised at meetings in June and July.

“We keep seeing it happen. … All the efforts locally that our partner organizations took, there’s been no change. And in fact, there was an increase these past couple months,” Pineda said.

It’s possible the actual number of people impacted is higher, Pineda said, noting that rights groups only know about self-reported incidents.

Migrants from many countries are showing up at the border

News of the alleged violations comes as an increasing number of migrants from around the world are crossing the US-Mexico border in the Yuma sector, which stretches 126 miles from the Imperial Sand Dunes in California to the Yuma-Pima County line in Arizona.

For years, the vast majority of migrants attempting to cross the border were from Mexico or Central America.

“The countries we’re receiving now – those nationalities are flying in, arriving to the border, and they’re having to be processed and there’s just so many of them that it is posing a challenge to the workforce,” Yuma Border Patrol Sector Chief Chris Clem told CNN last month, noting that up to 1,000 migrants are apprehended daily.

Last year Yuma’s mayor issued a local emergency order in response to an increasing number of migrants crossing there.

In 2019 advocates told CNN they were seeing more migrants from India, including Sikhs, coming to the US-Mexico border and seeking asylum.

CNN’s Manveena Suri, Huizhong Wu and Harmeet Kaur contributed to this report.