Incomprehensible: Indigenous Immigrants Screwed Because of Bad Translations
By Rick Kearns
Many Indigenous immigrants from Mexico and Central America, including unaccompanied children, are not able to understand their rights or present their case for asylum to United States officials due to a lack of appropriate language assessment, leading to no translation, which is in violation of an Executive Order and their rights to due process according to advocates in Arizona.
In late May and June, indigenous rights advocates from Tucson, Arizona issued declarations and an in-depth study of the problems facing indigenous immigrants who enter into the U.S. Immigration system.
Every year several thousand indigenous immigrants find themselves lost in a bewildering and sometimes abusive system that breaks up families, destroys lives and sends people back to their home countries where they often face more violence according to the advocates.
In the first event, held on May 26, the Guatemalan Indigenous Community in Tucson (GICT) published the “Declaration of Indigenous Language Speaking Immigrants in the US Immigration System” to explain the problems facing their communities and to issue a call for action from the relevant federal agencies.
“We call on all U.S. government immigration agencies, the ancillary private contractors legally empowered and financed by the U.S. Federal government, as well as our own counsels to immediately recognize our right to communicate in our own languages and to stop denying us our legal and human rights under due process and international law. We call on all policy makers within the U.S. migration system, in related criminal and child dependency courts to secure the necessary resources to provide for interpretation for indigenous languages from Central America and Mexico,” the Declaration stated.
The need for the declaration and advocacy came to the attention of Guatemalan activists in Tucson including Walter Gonzalo, spokesman for the GICT and one of the contributors to the Declaration. Gonzalo is Quiche, a Mayan people, from Guatemala and speaks Quiche, Spanish and English.
He explained that the GICT was officially formed in 2014. Before that members of the GICT had been working informally before last year in helping indigenous and other immigrants who were in the local shelter or who had been ordered to leave Tucson after interacting with immigration and border patrol officials. The group often raised money for food, transportation and clothing for the immigrants and along the way he noticed that many people were unaware of their situation.
“I encountered many indigenous immigrants who did not know what was happening to them,” he stated. “They didn’t speak Spanish, or knew very little, and had signed papers without knowing what they meant.”
One of the volunteers who helps the GICT is Blake Gentry, a policy analyst with AMA Consulting and an activist in Tucson. Gentry went on to conduct a study of the situation facing the indigenous immigrants and held a press conference on June 20 to describe some of the findings in “The Exclusion of Indigenous Language Speaking Immigrants in the United States Immigration System, a technical review.”
For the study, Gentry interviewed immigrants, immigrant attorneys, court interpreters, and workers in family detention centers and in shelters for unaccompanied children.
“I found a deeply and profoundly disturbing pattern,” Gentry said at the June 20 press event in Tucson.
“A pattern of comprehensive exclusion of indigenous languages in immigration processes and legal proceedings; exceptions demonstrated a highly inconsistent use of phone interpreters for immigrants whose first language is an indigenous language. The research findings suggest that many indigenous language-speaking immigrants are not literate in Spanish and have a low level of oral comprehension in Spanish. They are racially most often misidentified as Hispanics, and not indigenous persons; that misidentification leads to mistaken assumptions about their capacity to speak and understand Spanish. Such assumptions are made in every level or phase of the U.S. immigration system: during apprehension, in long term and family detention, in immigration and criminal court, and in shelters for unaccompanied children. Even when individuals were identified as indigenous language speakers there was no meaningful monitoring of access to interpretation,” he asserted.
In the study they found that the lack of information in indigenous languages could be seen in over 30 different points of contact between immigrants and U.S. officials and that many indigenous immigrants were affected. They estimated that of the Guatemalans removed from the area in 2014, between 18,819 and 22,858 were indigenous language speakers, not counting those remaining in detention. The total number of unaccompanied indigenous children in that year was approximately 7,000.
According to Gentry and the GICT, this lack of services violates Executive Order 13166 which guarantees language rights access to all persons, and that denial of such access also violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
In press statements issued after the June 20 event, both Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol officials asserted that they had always found translators and ways to communicate with immigrants. They also said that the translator services they employ can handle 150 languages and dialects, and that they contact consulate officers to assist in the process.
Another agency involved with the language issue is the Department of Human Services (DHS) and they also pointed to their “I speak” project which is translated into 56 languages. Gentry countered that this approach is not working either.
“That is a non-starter for indigenous language speakers with low levels of literacy and few who can read their own written language which were only introduced in the rural public school system in Guatemala in the early 2000s,” Gentry said.
In the meantime, the GICT will be presenting their declaration directly to the local Customs and Border Patrol office. Both the GICT and Gentry stated they would be happy to help develop an adequate language assessment process.
In their Declaration, the GICT further explained why more indigenous Guatemalans will be traveling north.
“Our indigenous cultures survived colonization, the building of post-colonial nation states, and civil wars in Central America and Mexico. As Indigenous Peoples living now in the second decade of the 21st Century, we must act to protect our families and our cultures against the changing threats of visible enemies that strike at us with a variety of weapons. We make this call given the on-going displacement of Indigenous Peoples from principally but not exclusively rural areas in Mexico and Central America. The weapons being used against our families are the economic and security policies that result in our communities being transformed into unlivable places due to on-going economic displacement that forces us into poverty and extreme poverty, exposes us to dangerous Drug Cartel violence, or both.”
“We state here unequivocally, that unless national governments dismantle those weapons which destroy our communities and separate our families – we have no choice but to migrate.”