When Melinda and her family reached the border between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso in late October 2020, a storm menaced late into the night and the ground was covered with snow.
Upon reaching the international port of entry, 26-year-old Melinda never spoke directly with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer. She did not reach the top of the bridge where two CBP officers guarded the international boundary, nor did she try to surrender herself and her family to Border Patrol at the levee of the Rio Grande.
“We didn’t know anything about asking for asylum when we came. We thought that they would take us inside but we saw that it wasn’t this way,” Melinda said, still confused. “When we got (to the bridge) they told us that the borders were closed because of the pandemic and they were not taking any more people.”
When Indigenous migrants like Melinda finally reach the U.S. border after making the long trek across Mexico, a lack of familiarity with the asylum process is compounded by language and cultural barriers, causing added challenges and distress.
Melinda could understand some Spanish but speaking the language was more difficult. She depended on another Guatemalan woman who had joined them on their trip through Mexico to translate and understand the process of seeking asylum in the United States.
“When (we were dropped off) at the bridge, there were some soldiers and my friend spoke to them,” Melinda said.
The “soldier” Melinda described was likely an officer from the National Migration Institute in Juárez (INM) or an employee of the Trust Fund of Border Bridges of Chihuahua. He called Grupo Beta, a government agency that offers migrant protection services on the two Mexican borders.
“We didn’t know what to do. I was very scared and I didn’t know what to do with my sons. We didn’t know where to go with our children who were cold. Thank God these people got here and they helped us,” Melinda said about Grupo Beta.
An agent from the Grupo Beta assisted Melinda and her family, clustering them with other migrants who had approached the bridge that night.
Two other Indigenous migrants from Guatemala, Alma and her son Salvador, were among them. They were hungry and cold — their shoes and bottom of their pants were soaked from the snow piles at the foot of the international bridge.
Alma and Salvador spent the night at a warehouse in Juárez and had nothing to eat since 8 a.m. besides some cookies and yogurt that they bought with 200 Mexican pesos (about $10) that a woman gave to them.
Though they received support from Grupo Beta, Alma said that “no one came near” to help them understand the process of seeking asylum in the United States.
Encounters with Mexican and U.S. immigration officials can be particularly confusing and harrowing for Indigenous immigrants. Melinda never actually interacted with CBP or Border Patrol agents, unaware that she needed to present herself to them to initiate an asylum claim. But for others who do, a wide range of things can happen.
Under Title 42, migrants may be immediately expelled by U.S. immigration officials to Northern Mexico cities like Ciudad Juárez. If they are an unaccompanied child, they may be held in temporary CBP facilities before being transferred to a Department of Health and Human Services shelter. They can also be placed in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility.
Prior to the halting of Migrant Protection Protocols (the controversial Trump-era policy also known as “Remain in Mexico”) they may have been forced to wait in Mexico for their U.S. immigration court date. As many as 25,000 people who were enrolled in this program are still stuck in Mexico awaiting a hearing.
MPP started in 2019 and new enrollments into the program were suspended on Jan. 21, 2021. This means that Melinda and her family along with Alma, who reached the border in October 2020, would have had a chance to enroll into the program but for some reason didn’t.
With Melinda’s limited Spanish comprehension and confusion at the moment they reached the border, it is unclear if their chance to seek asylum was denied or if the migrants couldn’t express their desire to enroll in MPP.
The Center of Integral Attention for Migrants (CAIM), managed by the Population State Council of Chihuahua (COESPO), is the first stop for many migrants who arrive in Juárez.
But CAIM is not responsible for informing migrants about the process of seeking asylum because it is managed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said COESPO coordinator, Enrique Valenzuela.
Almost 100,000 Guatemalans have been encountered by Customs and Border Protection at United States land borders between October and March, the first six months of the U.S. federal government’s 2021 fiscal year. Given that 44 percent of Guatemalans are Indigenous, it stands to reason that many thousands of Indigenous language speakers like Melinda and Alma are arriving annually from Guatemala, just one in a number of sending countries with large Indigenous populations.
But because both CBP and ICE do not track the number of Indigenous immigrants, nor do they track the number of Indigenous language speakers who they encounter, the full extent of attempted Indigenous immigration into the United States is unknown.
Migrant advocates say it is not the norm for CBP officials to offer thorough interpretation services for Indigenous language speakers.
Although West Texas CBP spokesperson Roger Maier confirmed that agents use a phone-based interpretation service when they encounter Indigenous language speakers, he said there are no available statistics regarding how frequently these services are used.
“I believe there are currently 22 Mayan languages that are recognized by the Guatemalan government, as well as non-Mayan languages like Garifuna and Xinca, and the Mexican government recognizes 68 national languages, so it’s clearly not right to assume that someone from Guatemala or someone from Mexico speaks and understands Spanish,” said Rodriguez from Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.
“Arguably, ICE and CBP and other agencies should be collecting the data (on Indigenous immigrants). For example, ICE uses a computer system that has a page called ‘Encounter Details,’ and it has a field on it for ‘Primary language’ that is often left blank, it says ‘N/A.’ It’s not like the tools don’t exist for these encounters to be tracked more clearly.,” she said.
On a phone call with El Paso Matters, West Texas CBP spokesperson Landon Hutchens said that after hundreds of years since the Spanish colonization of the Americas, “you’d think (Indigenous immigrants) would have learned Spanish by now.”
Official documents suggest the Department of Homeland Security has deficiencies in translating documents for their screening processes to accommodate Indigenous language speakers. The DHS 2020 Language Access Plan said “(U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) has encountered challenges in finding competent translators to translate information in any of the Indigenous languages of Central America.”
The assumptions that CBP makes about the language abilities of immigrants they encounter can have major implications for their asylum cases, said Linda Corchado, executive director of legal services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. Corchado said Indigenous immigrants made up approximately a third of their docket last year.
She described the difficulties experienced by an Indigenous couple she recently represented, who fled Guatemala after losing their home in the hurricane and facing persecution by a former intimate partner.
“(My client) didn’t understand any of the documents that CBP had brought to him, he didn’t even know how to sign his name,” Corchado said, describing how cultural issues connected to their indigeneity (like the lack of a paper marriage license) also affected the way the couple was treated by CBP.
“If (CBP) would have been able to speak to her with an interpreter, they would have understood in three minutes that the couple was married,” Corchado said. Instead, the couple wasn’t notified of each other’s status when the wife was admitted to the hospital, and both were terrified after CBP accused them of fraudulently representing their relationship. What CBP perceived as inconsistencies in their story were actually interpretation issues, Corchado said.
When migrants are detained by CBP and ICE, interpretation issues can compound and result in medical neglect and heightened due process issues, Corchado and other advocates said.
Among the six children who died in CBP custody in recent years, five were Indigenous.
“They can’t navigate the system, they can’t effectively communicate with guards, medical personnel, ICE officers,” said Corchado, who described struggling with ICE in order to schedule a Language Line interpreter for communicating with her clients.
“What that meant was that I very inadequately had to do my job,” she said.
Anti-Indigenous prejudice and cultural norms when dealing with authority figures can also exacerbate problems with DHS officials, said Blake Gentry, a researcher and advocate whose work focuses on Indigenous immigrants.
“There are a lot of people who don’t identify themselves (as Indigenous language speakers) even though they speak an Indigenous language because of stigma. The stigma is real, and (Indigenous people) have learned their lesson that when you’re asked a question — especially on the border by a person who is a uniformed green officer (Border Patrol agent), just like the military where they come from, who has a gun and is yelling at you in Spanish — you’re gonna answer yes or no,” he said.
Even if an immigrant does advocate for themselves and their need for an interpreter, the extent to which U.S. immigration officials understand the depth and breadth of Central American Indigenous languages is unclear.
A recent FEMA job posting for an Office of Refugee Resettlement listed in the position responsibilities that the applicant should have “(familiarity) with Indigenous dialects spoken in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and/or El Salvador.”
For Gentry, the phrasing of that job call is telling.
“Those languages have been around for 4,000 years and here we are … calling them dialects, which is total B.S. Not using social linguistic information, not taking it seriously, and denying people’s rights because of their ignorance,” Gentry said.
Linguist Sergio Romero echoed the criticism.
“That’s ridiculous. You know, in Central America you have at least eight to 10 different language families,” he said, comparing the phrasing of the job call to expecting someone to understand all the languages in Europe.
For Melinda and Alma, there is a lot of pride in maintaining their Indigenous languages and culture. Even as her son begins to speak more Spanish at the shelter, Alma said that she’s not afraid of him losing their native language, Ke’kchi.
“I speak to them in both languages,” Alma said, referring also to her children who stayed in Guatemala with their grandmother. “What I want is for them to preserve and speak the two languages.”
Melinda only talks to her children in K’iche’, hoping they won’t forget how to speak the Mayan language, but she’s also proud of her improvement in Spanish. For Melinda, having the skill of speaking two languages is an advantage.
“When we first got here, I couldn’t — I can’t speak a lot (of Spanish) still. Most people speak Spanish, so little by little I’m learning,” Melinda said. “My boy, the youngest one is also starting to speak Spanish.”
Cover photo: Diego, Melinda’s son, chooses a toy from a box in El Buen Samaritano shelter in Juárez. Melinda is learning Spanish, but wants her children to preserve their native K’iche language. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)