Human Rights organization documents hundreds of confiscated items at the border that are never returned
Over 300 instances of improper confiscations have been documented by WOLA.
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This week, the Washington Office on Latin America released an extensive report with documented instances of Border Patrol Agents confiscating migrant possessions at the border without returning them. Many of the items seized are necessary in legal procedures for successful entry into the United States via the courts, the report found.
According to the Border Patrol’s own guidelines, personal possessions obtained from migrants are held by the patrol’s office for inspection and unless deemed as contraband, items are returned to their original owner.
The guidelines, however, do not detail the logistics behind the return process, though it does detail routine inspection by the supervising officer, as well as a responsibility to report missing or damaged property. Operating procedures and timelines are not immediately available in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Standards.
A lack of logistical guidance results in the frequent seizure and loss of property that is, in reported cases, essential to a refugee upon processing into the U.S.
Chelsea Sachau, an Arizona-based attorney who works with The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Project, told The Arizona Republic of a case where a refugee collected legal documents to present in their asylum case.
“One of my first clients that I ever met with carried 500 pages of legal documents from his case in his home country. He wrapped them in plastic, and he left other things at home because he knew how important those papers would be to show why his country's legal systems had failed. And he did win his case,” she said. “But if he had passed through Yuma today and had his documents confiscated, he might have never won.”
Other instances include personal property of awesome religious importance to its holder. The ACLU sent a letter, detailing exchanges between border agents and Sikhs resulting in the removal of the refugee’s headwear.
“The method of forcing conversions was to remove a Sikh’s turban and cut off their hair. Since then, forcibly removing or targeting a Sikh’s turban or facial hair has symbolized denying that person the right to belong to the Sikh faith and is perceived by many as the most humiliating and hurtful physical and spiritual injury that can be inflicted upon a Sikh,” the letter read.
Additionally, the letter contends that border patrol practices violate religious freedom under federal law. ACLU says there were 65 exchanges between January and July where agents inappropriately removed the headwear, with 47 of those instances happening between June and July.
Other forms of confiscation include Mexican currency, memorabilia, passports, luggage, and medication, among many more reported items.
When Democratic representatives got wind of the occurrences, they sent a Congressional letter citing “grave concerns” over the “egregious violations” on the border. Reps. Ral Grijalva, Joaquin Castro, and Judy Chu, all Democrats, authored the letter.
Amid increasing backlash, CBP issued new guidance to address the confiscation of religious headwear.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Directives requiring the Commissioner’s signature and CBP Policy Memorandums issued by the Office of the Commissioner, Policy Directorate (PD Memos) be released publicly unless they contain information that should not and/or cannot be released for personnel safety, privacy, or legal reasons,” the guidelines read.
Furthermore, CBP issued a response to the ACLU’s letter and said that an internal investigation would be launched, though no details were offered.
“Our expectation is that CBP employees treat all migrants we encounter with respect,” read part of the response.
WOLA also launched a Border Oversight database, regularly updated to keep track of improper or abusive encounters at the border.