By manipulating illiterate refugees who often unwittingly sign away their rights, the U.S. government is violating the basic tenets of the internationally recognized and protected right to seek asylum.
As part of one of my courses at Barnard College, several classmates and I spent a week at the South Texas Family Residential Center volunteering with the Dilley Pro Bono Project, where we assisted detained migrant women and children from Central America. We answered questions, prepared them for interviews to determine whether they had credible fears of returning to their home countries and helped them fill out paperwork.
What I did not anticipate becoming one of the most challenging aspects of my week on the border was how migrant women’s illiteracy and lack of formal education presented a constant and often invisible barrier to their ability to seek asylum.
The documents provided by the Department of Homeland Security require extensive personal information from asylum seekers, including the names and birthdays of themselves and their children, contact information for the sponsors who would receive them after they’re released from detention, and details about when and where they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and how long they had been in detention. But official DHS forms ask for all of this information in English. This presents an enormous and obvious barrier for non-English-speaking migrants.
Simple translation is not enough. The Dilley Pro Bono Project provides documents in Spanish, but even this paperwork was difficult for many migrant women to understand. Many women I helped to fill out paperwork struggled simply to write their children’s birth dates.
The majority of women and children seeking asylum along the U.S.-Mexico border are from the “Northern Triangle,” the region encompassing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where 54 percent of all current pending immigration cases originate. Literacy rates for Central American women are significantly lower than in other Latin American countries. Guatemalan women, many of whom are indigenous and not native Spanish speakers, are the least likely to be able to read and write, with a literacy rate of 76 percent compared with 87 percent for men.
The intentionally dense and obtuse language of DHS forms raises grave concerns about the extent to which migrant women understand any of the legal paperwork that government officials pressure them to sign. During the family separation crisis last year, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that border officials misled and pressured parents to sign their own deportation papers to be reunited with their children. The report found that distraught parents had only a few minutes to review the forms and weren’t provided any information about the safety and whereabouts of their children.
Although most women I worked with struggled to understand the paperwork, many preserved small pieces of paper throughout their harrowing journey with hopes that U.S. officials could use them affirm to their cases. One mother stitched court documents and police reports into her child’s blanket because she believed they were critical evidence to support her asylum claim. The resourcefulness and determination of these migrant women cannot be understated; those who understood the forms often helped out those who were lost.
Regardless, a more compassionate immigration system wouldn’t subject migrants to this test. For many immigrants, being deported is a matter of life or death, as returning to their home countries often means they are in danger of being killed. Why should such a fate depend upon whether a migrant can read a government document?