PHOENIX — When migrants arrive at the US border to apply for asylum, they carry both the weight of their journey and the weight of their backpacks.
“I want us to close our eyes and think for a moment. What would you put in that backpack?” asked Pedro de Velasco, director of education and advocacy at the Kino Border Initiative.
He addressed a crowd of about 50 people who gathered at the First Church United Church of Christ in Phoenix on Thursday to call for action to protect the rights of migrants.
“What important items would you take with you on this journey to an unknown land, probably never to return?” said Velasco.
“You probably think of pictures of your children, of your loved ones. You probably think of letters from your family, from your relatives, words of encouragement. You probably think of prayers, the Bible, the crucifix,” Velasco continued. “You probably also think about basic needs. You know, your passport, your birth certificate, the proof of your (asylum) case.”
Advocacy groups say Border Patrol agents in Yuma are forcing migrants to leave behind what Velasco called.
Nathalie Hernandez Barahona, a first-generation Chicana working with the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition, said medicines, shoes and clothing were also some of the items migrants left behind after their long journeys to the border.
“I will never forget seeing a wheelchair at the border that made me wonder how that person continued their journey,” said Hernandez Barahona.
She recalled how her father told her that when he migrated to the United States, his personal belongings were confiscated and thrown away. This was in the 1980s, she said.
“These practices cause so much grief and despair for those seeking a better life… This has been going on for far too long,” said Hernandez Barahona.
The Uncage & Reunite Families Coalition organized the press conference to ‘expose’ this treatment. People held posters with statements such as ‘The garbage from Yuma’s border patrol is the treasure of immigrants’ and placards hung around the church with phrases such as ‘Stop cruelty’ or ‘Stop bullying’.
Chelsea Sachau, a lawyer with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, said the confiscation of items is “incredibly concerning” as medical records, medicines and personal documents could be crucial for migrants in their case of seeking asylum. She said their lives could depend on them.
“One of my first clients I ever met carried 500 pages of legal documents from his case in his home country. He wrapped them in plastic and left other things at home because he knew how important those papers would be in showing why his country’s justice systems had failed. And he won his case. But if he had gone through Yuma today and his documents had been confiscated, he might never have won.”
Those who lose their asylum applications risk being sent back to their countries and to the dangers that made them leave in the first place.
In addition to the documents, Sachau said he heard that some people are being forced to leave their religious belongings behind. For example, Sikhs have been asked to take off their turbans in the Yuma sector, she said.
“All these combined are actions that violate the rights and freedoms of asylum seekers,” Sachau said.
These actions can also be deadly, according to Eddie Chavez Calderon, a campaign organizer for Arizona Jews for Justice. At the press conference, he said he once helped a girl whose kidney medication had been thrown away and who had developed a urinary tract infection.
He remembered the girl’s father who asked for help.
“I saw the pain in his face, the pain in his body. I may not have understood him, but I understood his pain,” said Chavez Calderon.
What happens to the property that is left behind?
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention and Search states that the personal property of detainees that is not considered contraband is protected, specified and documented. The property will be stored in a secure storage area or area and, if possible, handed over with the migrant according to standards.
“If personal property cannot be transferred with the detainee, CBP will generally hold personal property for a minimum of 30 days from a detainee’s processing. After 30 days, personal belongings are considered abandoned and can be destroyed,” the document reads.
Special attention will be given to the security and return of monetary personal property and legal documents signed by the migrant will be provided to them according to the policies and procedures of the operational office, the document said.
According to the document, medications will be kept with personal belongings unless the medication is to be administered regularly or properly stored according to regulations.
Sometimes, when items are seized, the Border Patrol keeps them for 30 to 60 days, according to Sachau.
Some migrants are given tickets to claim their belongings later; however, she said in her experience that she has not seen or heard of a case where people could pick up their belongings because they are already all over the country or some have been deported.
“It’s not like Border Patrol is sending it to you. You have to come back and reclaim it. And that’s not really possible and feasible for some people, especially if they don’t have the right documents to get on a plane, for example, or something like that,” Sachau said.
Sachau said security and logistical issues for transportation are some of the reasons agents give to explain why they are confiscating the items.
In other cases, proponents say the stuff is thrown away. A video shown during the press conference showed photos of piles of backpacks and clothing left behind at the border. Photos of passports, crucifixes and medicines on the ground were also shown.
Velasco said last weekend he supported a group of 12 migrants who said patrol officers took their belongings and said they would return them after arriving in Tucson, “which never happened.”
“One person lost $200, wallets, phones and jewelry with sentimental value,” Velasco said. “One member of the group said they witnessed a Border Patrol agent taking 3,000 pesos from another migrant and tore it in his face, saying, ‘This is garbage, this has no value to you here’ , before throwing in the ripped bills. the garbage.”
‘It hasn’t stopped and it won’t stop’
Chris Magnus, Commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, responded to concerns about personal property, including turbans, being removed and discarded while migrants were in CBP detention.
“We take allegations of this nature very seriously,” Magnus said in an emailed statement. “This issue was raised in June and immediate steps were taken to address the situation. Our expectation is that CBP staff will treat all migrants we encounter with respect.”
The statement said an internal investigation has been launched to address the situation.
Esther Duran Lum, co-chair of the Uncage & Reunite Families Coalition, said they have raised the issues at the border with officials, including congressmen and leadership at the Department of Homeland Security.
A statement released Wednesday by the office of U.S. Representative Raúl M. Grijalva said he led 22 members of Congress to send a letter to Magnus and Tae D. Johnson, acting director of immigration and customs enforcement, about CBP agents seizing and disposing of migrants’ personal documents and religious property.
In the letter, they ask the agencies to answer questions about their standards, policies and procedures, and how they monitor them.
This is the kind of action Duran Lumm said she and other advocates are pursuing. Towards the end of the event, she asked the public to contact elected officials and ask them to do something about it.
“We felt we should hold this press conference to raise public awareness of what has been going on for a long time. … We’re sure it hasn’t stopped and it probably won’t stop because so many of those agencies think they’re above the law,” said Duran Lumm.