Indigenous Migrants Denied Linguistic Access

Newly released research by the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMSNY) suggests that “the denial of medical attention to migrants in U.S. custody is a widespread and systemic problem, and one that appears to affect Indigenous language speakers disproportionately.” The study was based on more than 1,100 post-deportation surveys with unauthorized Mexican migrants. CMSNY is a think tank and an educational institute “devoted to the study of international migration, to the promotion of understanding between immigrants and receiving communities, and to public policies that safeguard the dignity and rights of migrants, refugees, and newcomers.”


It also appears that both of the most-publicized recent border tragedies—the deaths of two children that occurred while they were in U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) custody—may have been avoided had the CBP interpreters been better able to communicate in Indigenous languages. The main language of the Caal family, whose seven-year-old daughter, Jakelin, died of sepsis, is Q’eqchi’, but shortly before her death, her father signed a form in English saying that his daughter was in good health. CBP officials say they provided a “verbal translation,” but the Caals were not offered a Q’eqchi’ interpreter.


On Christmas Eve, Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, an eight-year-old Guatemalan boy, died from the flu after he was taken to a hospital, released, then returned to the hospital. Felipe’s mother speaks the Mayan language Chuj and does not understand Spanish.


Executive Order 13166, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, requires federal agencies to “identify any need for services to those with limited English proficiency; and develop and implement a system to provide those services.” The Department of Homeland Security has a policy that commits to “provide meaningful access for individuals with limited English proficiency to operations, services, activities, and programs… by providing quality language assistance services in a timely manner.” According to the CBP language access plan, the agency is prepared to offer services in eight different languages, including Spanish.


BuzzFeed has also reported on the case of a 27-year-old Guatemalan woman who is facing deportation from the U.S. partly because her main language is Jacaltec. Known as JGCA, she experienced years of sexual assaults because of her light skin and is facing the final hearing of her asylum case to stay in the country with her daughters, who are U.S. citizens.
Today she speaks rudimentary Spanish and is in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, but her attorney said that at multiple points in her client’s case she was denied translations in the language she was fluent in, she was denied due process rights, and when she had an attorney, they proved to be ineffective, making it so JGCA never had a chance.
Official census figures estimate that 45% of Guatemala’s population is Indigenous, but other studies put the figure at 60%, or close to 6 million people.


In September 2008, when she was 17 years old, pregnant by her husband, and did not understand Spanish or English, JGCA attended her first court hearing alone in Georgia after being caught at the border without documentation. According to BuzzFeed News, “JGCA said she didn’t understand what was happening around her because the entire hearing was conducted in Spanish, not Jacaltec. She only understood when someone asked her what her name was or where she lived. Beyond that, nothing made sense.”

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