WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

25 Aug 2022 | News

Taken Away: U.S. Border Agents’ Widespread Confiscation of Migrants’ Valuable Personal Items

An August 1 complaint about Border Patrol agents confiscating Sikh asylum seekers’ religious headgear is the latest example in a longstanding pattern. U.S. border law enforcement agencies often fail to return, or discard, valuable items that they take from migrants.

Upon entering Border Patrol or Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody—whether apprehended in the field or voluntarily turning themselves in to seek asylum—migrants surrender what they’re carrying. CBP’s Transport, Escort, Detention and Search (TEDS) standards state that their belongings are to be “safeguarded” “documented” and held for 30 days or more. “After 30 days personal property will be considered abandoned and may be destroyed,” the standards document reads, though it’s not clear how migrants are expected to claim their property while in custody, moved elsewhere, or removed from the United States without it.

Far too often, property doesn’t get returned. This is a longstanding unofficial practice of many CBP officers and Border Patrol agents: several years ago, a janitor at a CBP facility in Ajo, Arizona, even made an art exhibit out of confiscated items that had accumulated.

The pattern includes agents’ confiscation of items vital to religious freedom, like rosary beads or the 64 or more turbans taken from Sikhs in Arizona so far this year. Some unreturned items have monetary value, like cash, jewelry, and mobile phones. Some have sentimental value, like photos, small heirlooms, and children’s stuffed animals and dolls. Some are important for health and well-being, like prescriptions and medicines. And some are essential for navigating daily life as a U.S.-based asylum seeker, like identity documents, proof of persecution, and vital phone numbers.

Some unreturned documents can be essential to winning asylum cases and avoiding removal to migrants’ home countries, where they could be killed. Attorney Chelsea Sachau of the Arizona-based Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project discussed this earlier this month with the Arizona Republic:

“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. But if he had passed through Yuma today and had his documents confiscated, he might have never won.”

In April 2022 WOLA launched Border Oversight, a regularly updated database of alleged abusive or improper conduct by U.S. border agents. It captures cases from media reports, official documents, and complaints from advocates based along the U.S.-Mexico border. We have now documented over 300 events since 2020, assembling a disturbing picture of “everyday,” unaccountable abuse at the border.

Of those captured events, as of mid-August 2022, 13 involve confiscation of documents and 28 involve non-return of belongings. This is just the small sample of cases that we know about because committed individuals and groups at the border are recording them. 

Here is a troubling sample of cases just from the past several months:

Confiscated turbans

An August 1 letter from the ACLU of Arizona, first covered by the Intercept and Arizona Luminaria, contended that Border Patrol agents in Yuma had confiscated at least 64 turbans from asylum seekers of the Sikh faith so far this year, including at least 50 in the prior 2 months.

These, the letter argues, are “serious religious-freedom violations” against members of the world’s fifth-largest organized religion, most prevalent in India’s Punjab region. “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 notes.

Citing interns at an Arizona migrant shelter, Arizona Luminaria reported on August 5 that “the number of turbans confiscated and discarded by Border Patrol is in the hundreds, far beyond the number reported earlier this week.” In further reporting on August 17, the publication, citing the national Sikh Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, found “at least 12 new cases of turban confiscation this month alone.”

Torn up Mexican currency

On August 4, the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), which interviews returned migrants who arrive at its shelter in Nogales, Mexico, reported a significant case of non-return of migrants’ valuable belongings:

Last weekend, ICE deported a group of 12 migrants to Nogales after being detained. Every person reported that upon their encounter with BP, agents took away all their belongings and said they would return them upon arriving in Tucson, which never happened. When they arrived in Nogales, their belongings still had not been returned. Items confiscated included money (one individual lost $200 USD), wallets, phones, and jewelry with sentimental value. One person from the group shared that he witnessed a Border Patrol agent take $3,000 pesos [about US$150] from another migrant and rip it up in his face saying, “This is trash, this is of no value to you here,” before throwing the ripped bills in the trash can.

Family photos

KBI also reported on August 4 about a Mexican migrant whom Border Patrol removed from the United States without returning his ID and phone. Without his phone, he lost access to a large collection of irreplaceable family photos. Another Mexican man returned without his phone “did not have any family phone number memorized,” and was left trying to contact relatives via Facebook.

Passports in the dirt

In Yuma, Arizona in May, The Guardian cited Fernando “Fernie” Quiroz, director of the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition migrant assistance group, who recently “came across a navy blue Haitian passport and Cuban passports just lying in the dirt, and he said he can’t begin to fathom why.”

“Come back in 30 days”

In late April 2022, KBI reported the case of a Mexican woman who was expelled without the opportunity to ask for asylum.

She was detained by Border Patrol agents who confiscated her belongings, including her cell phone. When she was going to be expelled into Mexico, a Border Patrol agent asked her to sign a paper saying that she would return in 30 days to collect her belongings. She asked the BP agent, “How will I collect my belongings in 30 days? Do I have to climb over the wall again?” The Border Patrol agent just laughed and said he didn’t know. Border Patrol also confiscated several other women ‘s phones from the same group. A few of them were crying because they did not know their family members’ phone numbers to contact them. One young woman in the group was from an indigenous community in southern Mexico and did not speak Spanish. She had been separated from her husband and now had no way to contact him.

Only their shoes

An April 2022 report from Human Rights First, the Haitian Bridge Alliance, and Al Otro Lado recounted the experience of a Honduran asylum-seeking family whom CBP expelled, under the Title 42 pandemic authority, into San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico. “The officers did not return the family’s possessions, including money, luggage, and medications. They received only their shoes, which were soaking wet and covered in dirt causing painful blisters to develop as the family walked in search of a bus to take them to a shelter.”

Seizing proof of rape

In March 2022, KBI reported about a woman whom Border Patrol expelled to Nogales though she had proof of being raped by her smugglers. The agent, she said, confiscated her medical document:

One Border Patrol agent insinuated that the woman was lying about the attack, and tried to convince her not to undergo a forensic examination that would verify the abuse. When she showed paperwork from the hospital examination to a Border Patrol agent as proof of the attack, asking that he not send her back to Mexico, the Border Patrol agent confiscated the paperwork and did not return it to her.

In the trash in south Texas

Rio Grande Valley, Texas activist and artist Scott Nicol frequently shares evidence of migrants’ belongings trashed near the border wall, where asylum-seeking migrants frequently turn themselves in. He posted photographs in March 2022 of Cuban and Costa Rican vaccination cards discarded in a trash bag at a site near the border wall In Mission, Texas. On May 3, Nicol reported finding a Nicaraguan birth certificate, a cell phone, and a child’s stuffed animal beside the border wall in Hidalgo, Texas. That day, the Border Chronicle featured Nicol’s documentation of items he has recovered near the wall in south Texas. “What really got to me were the x-rays I found. They were for a six-year-old boy, and it showed a steel rod in his spine. It was obviously for an asylum claim. Why would anyone part with those?”

Flip-flops in the cold

A January 2022 Human Rights First report discussed asylum seekers placed into the revived “Remain in Mexico” program, sent into Mexico without their belongings.

Multiple individuals reported to Human Rights First that CBP officers discarded their personal possessions and that they were returned to Ciudad Juárez in December 2021 under RMX without their clothing, shoes, coats, or medication among other personal items – in violation of CBP’s detention standards. As a result, RMX returnees were forced to wear CBP-issued sweatsuits as they were returned to Ciudad Juárez, and on one occasion, Human Rights First researchers also observed RMX returnees wearing CBP-issued flip flops despite temperatures dipping to 40°F that day.

“This is no good”

An April 2022 report from Human Rights First discussed the 2021 separation of a 16-year-old Nicaraguan child from his parents near Eagle Pass, Texas: “CBP officers ripped up the boy’s birth certificate, interrogated him about his age, threatened to imprison him for 10 years, and forced him to sign a document stating that he was 18.” Noticias Telemundo reported the case in December 2021:

The mother, Luz Zelaya, says that she, meanwhile, had her son’s birth certificate torn up. It is a printed document stating that the minor was born in a municipality in northern Nicaragua in 2005, issued by local authorities days before his departure at the end of August 2021.

“This is no good’. And ra, ra, he tore it to pieces and put it in the trash. ‘You’re lying to me. I’m not dumb,’ he tells me,” recalls Zelaya.

Unaccompanied children’s passports

In an April 2022 complaint covering 2021, attorneys from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center (ImmDef) heard from migrant children who described CBP personnel confiscating their documents. A 13-year-old child from El Salvador had her birth certificate “confiscated and never returned to her.” A Romanian 17-year-old also had his passport confiscated and never returned.

Prescription pain medication

A November 2021 report from the El Paso, Texas-based Border Network for Human Rights included the testimony of “A.V.R.N.,” a legal U.S. resident who, though not taken into custody, had prescription medication taken away by CBP Field Operations personnel at the Santa Teresa Port of Entry in New Mexico, west of El Paso. After receiving leg surgery in Ciudad Juárez, a CBP officer refused to allow A.V.R.N. to take 10 Tramadol and Ketorolac pills, prescribed for pain, into the country. “The other two officers kept asking him to allow me to bring my medication since I had a prescription and it was only ten pills, which I really needed. But he refused, stating that the prescription was not valid in the U.S. and that the pills were like bringing in weed. That night I was in so much pain because I could only take Tylenol for my pain.”

These are just a few recent examples. WOLA’s Border Oversight database includes many more cases of non-return of documents and belongings, going back to 2020.

This practice is an apparent violation of CBP’s existing policies. It reinforces a tendency among border law enforcement agencies to view the migrant population—which is increasingly made up of families, children, and other asylum seekers—as threats or potential criminals undeserving of dignified treatment. It raises serious questions about what happens to property, like cash or electronics, that is valuable and unlikely actually to end up destroyed.

CBP policy does require disposal of possessions that it considers unsafe, threatening, or unhygienic. This may describe some items, such as the clothing worn by people who have undergone long journeys in miserable conditions. But it beggars belief that items like those described in the above examples fit that description.

CBP and its Border Patrol component are capable of storing migrants’ belongings and returning them. WOLA staff saw it most recently in Del Rio, Texas in March: at a respite center for asylum seekers released from custody, all retained the backpacks and bags with which they had migrated, each with claim tags still attached to them. That, however, is the only place we have seen this: elsewhere along the border, we have only witnessed released migrants allowed to keep whatever fits in a small clear plastic bag bearing the Department of Homeland Security logo.

Most discussions of human rights abuse committed by U.S. border agents focus on severe events like use-of-force incidents, fatalities, vehicle pursuits, or family separations. Alongside these allegations, and happening much more frequently, are a host of “everyday,” less spectacular forms of abuse of migrants. Examples include denial of food, water, or medical care; abusive language, at times toward children; racial profiling; misuse of intelligence capabilities; deportations and removals that place migrants in danger, and many others—including non-return of documents and belongings.

This kind of “everyday” abuse needs to stop. WOLA is encouraged that CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus responded to this month’s ACLU complaint about Sikh migrants’ turbans with the promise of an internal investigation, adding, “Our expectation is that CBP employees treat all migrants we encounter with respect.” We uphold the importance of CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) management responding thoughtfully and thoroughly to the list of questions about these agencies’ handling of personal property that 22 members of Congress submitted in an August 3, 2022 letter. 

We are further encouraged that activism around the “migrant belongings” issue is increasing. On August 4, the Border Chronicle’s Melissa del Bosque reports, a group of Arizona-based organizations, organized by the Tempe-based Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition, held a press conference in Phoenix to launch an advocacy campaign. The groups demand that CBP and Border Patrol follow their own written policies and that agents be retrained—and disciplined if they continue to confiscate or dispose of belongings.

WOLA will continue documenting events like these in its Border Oversight database, and alerting regularly about what we find. Credible investigations of complaints, and cooperation with Congress and other oversight bodies, are necessary to guarantee accountability for abuses and greater respect for migrants’ rights. We look forward to a future when we might have far fewer alarming allegations to document.