The Trump administration has sought to expand the government’s role in fostering religious freedom both at home and abroad, but within its own immigrant detention centers migrants of faith have seen their own religious freedoms curtailed.
Religious detainees have had their religious texts and items confiscated, been forced to eat forbidden foods, and have even watched as U.S. immigration agents threw their holy objects into the garbage in front of them, according to a letter of complaint sent to government watchdogs by the American Civil Liberties Union this week.
The complaint calls for the Department of Homeland Security to launch a formal investigation into the allegations against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which an ACLU attorney called part of “a systemic denial of detained immigrants’ religious-freedom rights.”
“Many immigrants seeking asylum have fled religious persecution in their own countries, only to face the appalling irony that ICE and BP are locking them up and violating those rights,” Heather Weaver, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, told The Daily Beast. “This administration purports to champion religious liberty, but its treatment of detained immigrants reveals the truth—Trump only wants religious liberty for some.”
That an administration with such a conspicuous fixation on religious liberty would deny it the most vulnerable people in its custody, Weaver said, “is unconscionable.”
The actions by ICE and CBP agents alleged in the letter, many of them first brought to the ACLU’s attention by media reports, show immigration agents violating constitutional guarantees of religious practice free from government interference, as well as the policies of their own agencies. Although complaints were lodged by detainees of many different faiths, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus come across as particularly vulnerable in immigration detention.
The complaint cites the case of Adnan Asif Parveen, who was born in Pakistan and has lived in the United States for nearly five years, and who was given only pork sandwiches to eat for six straight days after his work permit expired while its renewal was still pending. As an observant Muslim, Parveen is forbidden from eating pork, but after informing CBP officials of his dietary restrictions, nothing happened, leaving Parveen with no choice but to pick off the meat and eat only slices of bread for sustenance.
In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, Muslim immigrants held at a Florida detention center alleged that they had been denied access to prayer services, religious headwear, halal diets, and copies of the Quran by agents “animated solely by a desire to harass and demean... Muslim detainees, simply because of their religious faith.”
According to the suit, when asked why Muslim practices were not allowed at the detention center, staff, including the resident chaplain, have replied with statements like “boy, you’re in Glades County.”
Other alleged religious liberty violations listed in the complaint include confiscating and trashing Catholic rosaries, restricting or refusing access to religious texts, and even confiscating makeshift turbans made out of T-shirts and towels from Sikhs whose original religious headwear had been taken.
“Officials ripped them off of their heads, telling them that they could not wear them,” Weaver said. Some Sikhs have been offered replacements, for purchase, at detention center commissaries, although few have the money to do so.
“We even received a complaint from a Sikh man that Border Patrol confiscated his kara”—a cast iron bracelet that initiated Sikhs must wear at all times—“and threw it into the trash in front of him.”
Some inmates have even faced admonishment for individual religious practice. At a federal correctional facility in Victorville, California, that is used to hold immigrant detainees, detainee Marlon Escoto Cortez attempted to hold a Bible study group in a common area with roughly 15 other detainees, before they were told by an officer that they did not have the right to pray.
“It’s like playing Whack-A-Mole,” Weaver said, about ferreting out complaints against ICE and CBP for religious-liberty violations. “You put a stop to these abuses in one place, but then you find out that another ICE or CBP facility is doing the same thing, or worse.”
All of these allegations amount to violations of government policy for immigrant detainees, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law passed in 1993 that has served as a rubric for many of the Trump administration’s policies on religious liberty. CBP detention policies state that agents “should remain cognizant of a detainee’s religious or other dietary restrictions,” and perform their duties “with full respect for individual rights including equal protection under the law, due process, freedom of speech, and religion.”
ICE and CBP did not respond to requests for comment regarding the complaint, or the allegations referenced therein, but Weaver is hopeful that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will take action on behalf of detainees of faith.
“[An investigation]’s the best way to determine how widespread these religious freedom violations have been. There needs to be an agency-wide investigation so that systemic reforms can happen,” Weaver said. “There’s a desperate need for somebody to take a look here at the big picture… because all of these myriad religious freedom violations, when put together, demonstrate a pattern.”