Eileen Truax is the author of “We Built the Wall: How the U.S. Keeps out Asylum Seekers from Mexico, Central America and Beyond.”

A full and proper investigation into the death, while in U.S. Border Patrol custody, of Jakelin Caal, the 7-year-old indigenous girl who came to the United States from Guatemala seeking asylum, must examine a systemic problem that has been overlooked in the past but may have been a contributing factor: the need for indigenous language interpreters in U.S. federal facilities.

Every year, thousands of undocumented immigrants from indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America come to the United States speaking little or no Spanish. Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, Triqui, Chatino, Mixe, Raramuri or Purepecha are just a few of the many languages common in their communities of origin. Since many of them come straight from their hometowns to the United States, they have never lived in places where Spanish is the dominant language.

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When these Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants are sent to U.S. courts or seek medical attention, sometimes they are offered the services of an interpreter, but they often get someone fluent in Spanish instead of their own language. The reasons for this may be budget cuts or the immediate unavailability of someone who speaks the language. But often the reasons are the absence of information or cultural sensitivity training from those in charge of providing services.

This may have been the case of the Caal family, whose main language is Q’eqchi’. In the hours before Jakelin died, her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, signed a form in English saying that his daughter was in good health. CBP officials say they provided a “verbal translation.” But the Caals did not get a Q’eqchi’ interpreter, nor were they asked if they needed one. Most likely Nery Gilberto did not even know he had this option.

Not speaking Spanish or English is not the only challenge for indigenous immigrants. Many of their communities live in severe poverty, with little or no access to a formal education. Many have social structures and nonpunitive justice systems very different from what we have in the United States, so legal terms like “immigration proceedings,” “judge’s resolution” and “court proceedings” have no direct translation in some indigenous languages. Assuming that indigenous people would understand such terms fails to acknowledge their cultural reality and denies them the right to due process.

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Similar problems are often reported in hospitals. If doctors have a hard time explaining an illness like muscular atrophy to someone who speaks the same language, you can imagine what happens when they try to communicate this to someone who only speaks an indigenous language. Interpreters who work with indigenous immigrant communities in the United States not only have to be accurate translators, they often also become cultural mediators.

Dozens of cases where the absence of an interpreter has been harmful for indigenous immigrants in the United States have been registered in the past decade. One of the most widely known is that of Cirila Batlazar Cruz, a Oaxacan woman from the Chatino community. Batlazar Cruz lived in Mississippi, was pregnant and went into labor in November 2008. She spoke no English and knew just a few words in Spanish. In the hospital, where she recovered from giving birth, she was visited by a Puerto Rican interpreter who asked her several questions in Spanish. Later Batlazar Cruz would say she could not answer her because “she talked really fast and I didn’t understand.” The interpreter reported that Batlazar Cruz was not fit to be a mother, that she offered sex in exchange for housing and that she wanted to give her daughter up for adoption. The Department of Social Services assumed custody of the child, and it took a year of court appointments and voluntary legal aid for the mother to get her daughter back.

Another case is that of Manuel Jamines, an immigrant from Guatemala who also only spoke Q’eqchi’. In September 2010, a Los Angeles police officer fired on Jamines in front of MacArthur Park. According to police reports, the officer feared for his safety after ordering Jamines to stop and put his hands in the air. The officer gave the order several times, in Spanish and English. Jamines didn’t understand either; the agent shot, and Jamines died at the scene. After several protests, this particular case led to the creation of a cultural sensitivity training program for LAPD agents.

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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.

This shows that the U.S. legal framework already recognizes the importance of quality language assistance for non-English speakers. Now it has to acknowledge the cultural and linguistic diversity of those coming from indigenous communities, which could be a matter of life and death for those who, in spite of it all, still believe the United States is the place to build a future. Every one of them has the right to know their rights when they are being detained, what charges have been made against them and why their children got sick and died.

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