ACLU to CBP: Stop Trashing Asylum Seekers’ Possessions
“It strips people of their humanity,” says the ACLU.
For years, Border Patrol agents have trashed peoples’ documents and possessions at the border. But since the pandemic, the practice has escalated, further dehumanizing asylum seekers and violating the federal agency’s own policy regarding personal belongings, according to the ACLU and a coalition of immigrant advocacy organizations.
The requirement that asylum seekers abandon the few possessions they have at the border “strips people of their humanity, and is totally unnecessary,” said Noah Schramm, ACLU’s border policy strategist in Arizona.
When institutions violate people’s civil and human rights, they create an environment in which some feel justified in taking violent action, Schramm said, referring to the shooting death of a migrant last week in Texas by the warden of a private immigrant detention center. “The journey in itself is already dangerous,” he said. “And on top of that, they’re forced to abandon the few belongings that they’ve brought with them.”
On Monday, the coalition, led by the ACLU of Arizona, sent a letter to Customs and Border Protection commissioner Chris Magnus, who oversees Border Patrol, demanding that the agency stop confiscating and trashing peoples’ belongings, and asking for a meeting to discuss the issue.
The letter follows another sent by the ACLU in August regarding agents in Yuma, Arizona, trashing Sikh asylum seekers’ turbans, which they hold sacred. After receiving the letter, Commissioner Magnus ordered an investigation into agents’ religious rights violations and said the matter is being addressed, said Schramm.
But some Sikh men’s turbans are still being discarded, he said. Other asylum seekers of various faiths have also had their religious icons, Bibles, and other items trashed by agents at the border. “We hope that Magnus and CBP more broadly see the issue of religious rights violations as an outgrowth of the larger disregard for migrants’ personal belongings,” Schramm said.
All kinds of migrants have had their belongings trashed, said Sister Tracey Horan, an associate director at the Kino Border Initiative, a faith-based nonprofit that runs a shelter in Nogales, Sonora. Horan said she’s encountered both asylum seekers recently expelled under Title 42 and people who have lived in the U.S. for decades who have had their documents, money, and phones discarded by agents. For asylum seekers, it makes filing for protection nearly impossible, she said. “A lot of people they have photos, videos and screenshots of threatening messages on their phones as evidence,” she said. “Because they had to leave their homes in a hurry, that’s the only proof they have to show.”
It’s also their lifeline to loved ones, Horan said. “I remember one young man from Guatemala. We spent half an hour looking through Facebook at the shelter trying to find a family member he could contact, because his phone had been taken,” said Horan. “And he was very worried because it had been several days since anyone from his family had heard from him.”
Horan added that people with chronic illnesses, like diabetes and epilepsy, have had their medications discarded.
In Monday’s letter, the ACLU and other coalition members also documented reports of abuse. According to one account, agents forced a Nicaraguan man to throw away the ashes of his father, who had died during the 70-day journey from Nicaragua. Another man reported that agents ripped up his birth certificate in front of him while he was in custody. Agents also took stuffed animals and toys from children and threw them in the trash.
The growing number of abuses has drawn increased scrutiny from both the public and lawmakers. In August several organizations, headed by the Arizona nonprofit Uncage and Reunite Families, including KBI and the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition, launched a new campaign to persuade the Border Patrol to stop violating its own National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Searches policy, which requires that agents log and return belongings to migrants and that they act in a “dignified and respectful manner” toward others’ religious beliefs.
Also in August, Arizona representative Raúl Grijalva (D-Tucson) sent a letter signed by 22 other representatives asking for a nationwide review of CBP’s procedures relating to peoples’ belongings. “CBP destroying migrants’ personal documents or forcing them to leave them behind during processing is a direct contradiction of their own existing policy,” he said in a written statement. “These documents are often critical to these individuals’ immigration or asylum claims, many of whom have traveled thousands of miles through treacherous terrain to reach our country. While I appreciate Commissioner Magnus’ commitment to change, my colleagues and I will continue to hold the agency accountable until protocols are in place that uphold set policies, respect migrants, and prioritize the preservation of their documents and possessions.”
Since October 2021, nearly 2 million people have been expelled under Title 42 or deported under Title 8, according to Customs and Border Protection. Title 42, the public health statute implemented in the Trump era, which automatically expels asylum seekers and is still in place, inflates encounter numbers, since many migrants who try to cross are expelled repeatedly. Title 42 also closes ports of entry to legal requests for asylum, forcing migrants to cross deadly rivers and deserts to enter the country and present themselves to a Border Patrol agent.
Many arrive in places like the crossing at Morelos Dam in Yuma, which is relatively safe compared to other stretches of border. Currently, hundreds of asylum seekers from Georgia, Venezuela, Cuba, and India, among other countries, arrive each day to request asylum. They are exempt from Title 42 because they cannot be expelled back to Mexico.
While agents’ abuses appear to be widespread at stretches of border in Yuma and in the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, many cases have also been reported in Texas. In May, The Border Chronicle documented torn-up birth certificates and discarded passports found on the U.S. side of the border wall in locations where agents process asylum seekers in South Texas.
Today, more people are on the move, pushed by climate change, political unrest, and pandemic-wrecked economies. The trend is global. Many are headed to the United States both for economic and security reasons.
The government needs to come up with long-term solutions that treat asylum seekers humanely, said Schramm. He hopes that the coalition’s engagement with CBP will force it to take a harder look at its agents’ actions. “The number of people arriving at the border is high, but it’s been that way for a long time, and the government has had time to properly resource the issue,” said Schramm. “But until now, they’ve chosen not to do so.”
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