A Case for Language Justice at Borders and Inside

By Erandi Garcia and Meysi Ramon

Translators in the highlands of Guatemala are helping migrants stuck in the US who cannot speak Spanish — pictured by Ana Gómez for BBC News

Lack of language accessibility at the US borders can prove to be more perilous than the arduous journey some of the migrants have undertaken to reach the border. Being able to communicate and be understood is a privilege one often overlooks. Take Mario Perez Domingo for example, who was accused by Border Patrol agents at the US-Mexico border of falsifying his daughter’s birth certificate. Mario was unable to clearly communicate due to the language barrier as he was a Mam-speaking immigrant from Guatemala that his daughter’s birth certificate was legitimate. He had no access to a translator. Consequently, he was separated from his two-year-old daughter which might have been avoided with the help of an interpreter to mediate the language barrier.

Mario’s is just one of the 800,000 indigenous Latinx cases that are yet to be processed at the US-Mexico border. Undocumented immigrants make up 3.2% of the US population but there is lack of information about the percentage of Latinx indigenous folks in this population, making them invisible for policy interventions. It was not until the 2020 census when the option to check “indigenous” as an ethnic category became available. It is currently estimated that 200,000 Latinos of indigenous origin live in California. Counting indigenous communities in the census is important not only for capturing data, but also because there are material resources tied to these numbers.

The barriers for the communities falling at the intersection of Latinx, indigenous, and undocumented identities leads to language accessibility issues in the US immigration courts. This has been acutely felt since 2016 due to the higher demand for indigenous languages such as K’iche and Mam for Central American migrants. Since FY 2016 Mam has become one of the top ten languages used in the US immigration court system, much higher than the 19th place it held in FY 2014. Nonetheless, the challenge to get Mam interpreters continues. This poses a serious obstacle for the defence of undocumented indigenous individuals because mistranslation of documents or failure to communicate their rights have led many to unknowingly waive their asylum rights, become separated from their children, and be unable to access to critical health services. Mario’s lawyer did not speak Mam and similar to many other indigenous Latinx’ cases, Mario was provided with only a Spanish-language translator. As a result, Mario’s lawyer was unable to understand and contextualize his full story. Noting this, Mario’s lawyer asked for an extended trial to buy enough time to find a Mam interpreter. During this time Mario’s detention was prolonged and he remained separated from his daughter. Mario had become one of the 800 indigenous undocumented parents that were separated from their children and facing deportation, illuminating the continuous dismissal of indigenous language needs.

Language accessibility for indigenous Latinx undocumented immigrants is not only experienced in the immigration court system, but also in education services. In the US, 40% of undocumented immigrants lack basic literacy skills. According to the UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, undocumented indigenous Latinx students are often homogeneously defined as Spanish-speaking students. This creates additional educational barriers because educators can be unaware or unprepared to teach non-English and non-Spanish Speakers. Educators thus perpetuate curricula that further the invisibility and omission of indigenous students. These factors play a huge role in disrupting the progression and success of non-English and non-Spanish speakers, creating barriers in navigating a predominantly English-speaking world.

About 40% of California residents speak a language other than English and patients who are not proficient in English may not be able to clearly describe their symptoms to a provider or understand the doctor’s instructions. Due to these gaps, policies such as the Health Care Language Assistance Act of 2003 have been implemented to ensure equitable interpretation resources are available to non-English speakers. However, little to no enforcement of the policy is present in many U.S. hospitals. Similar issues are consistent through different spheres of undocumented/indigenous lives, with unsuccessful solutions aiming to bridge language access and cultural competency.

All of the issues discussed up to this point highlight the need to advocate for language justice, ensuring everyone has a right to understand and be understood. It is vital for language justice to be implemented in all spheres that indigenous Latinx migrants navigate to finally obtain the recognition they deserve. There are Latinx organizations dedicated to advocating for Latinx migrants in the U.S who will also “work directly with Indigenous-led organizations to fill in the gaps in their knowledge” and cater to their needs. In California alone, there are organizations such as East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (EBSC) and Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo (CIELO) who are continuously advocating for language justice among other things (e.g., COVID vaccine outreach, funds, TPS/DACA). By looking through the EBSC website one sees they provide various resources for low-income immigrants such as citizenship classes, English and Spanish classes and workshops based on eviction/tenant rights. However, none of this information was advertised in indigenous languages, it was only by speaking with Manuel De Paz, the EBSC community development coordinator that we learned the organization depends on volunteer interpreters to offer indigenous speaking migrant resources and help. On the other hand, CIELO’s Cultural Programming and Center for Indigenous Language and Power (CILP) offers resources in indigenous languages, indigenous literatures, and holds the National Indigenous Interpreters’ Project. All these efforts are examples of how organizations committed to language justice can make a difference. As seen in Mario’s case, language justice is key to bridging the gap between indigenous people and their rights. With a translator, Mario was able to “…reunite[e] with his daughter… after taking a DNA test, [and they were] both released” a month later. This, however, does not mean every immigration case has the same resolution.

Due to little government support, organizations need to continuously rely on donations and funds from other community members. The progression of language justice is mostly based on volunteers and donations. While this is a start, we believe that school districts should implement language justice through providing indigenous language translators for parents and students as suggested by Dr. Baquedano-Lopez, and also preserve dialects in schools’ curriculum. Federal and local government, universities, and community organizations are central to building language and cultural training programs to help achieve language justice. The hope of community advocates is to continue uplifting the voices of those who are falling between the gaps of language inaccessibility. The goal is not to help assimilate those who require a ‘non-traditional’ language but rather to empower underrepresented communities to access their rights and participate on their own terms. Only then can there be a holistic bridging of language diasporas.

About the Authors

Erandi Garcia is a third-year student double majoring in Spanish and Sociology. Her current research includes investigating the erasure of language when migrating to a different country. This research is important to her because language is the main thing that has allowed her to keep her Mexican identity within the United States and communicate with her family.

Growing up in a low-income unincorporated community, resource accessibility, mutual aid, and education reform-centered work have always been a passion of mine. My personal experiences as an undocumented Latina in South Central Los Angeles have pushed me to pursue the knowledge needed to understand, address and actively participate in the amelioration of critical social problems. My hobbies center on finding extensions of creativity and innovation; specifically, using writing as a tool to bridge cultural diasporas together.

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