When Melinda and her family arrived at the shelter El Buen Samaritano in November, a simple task like asking for a glass of water was a daunting challenge. No one could understand what the Indigenous migrants from Guatemala needed.
“They didn’t understand me,” Melinda said. “I would tell them ‘I don’t know’ because I didn’t know how to speak Spanish. I wanted to tell them I could understand, but I didn’t know how to explain it.”
After six months in the shelter, Melinda’s Spanish speaking skills have improved, but seeking asylum in the U.S. and communicating with Mexican authorities was almost impossible when the 26-year-old migrant first arrived.
All names of migrants in this article have been changed to avoid potential harm.
Melinda stays in the shelter, struggling to find any informal work and said she often feels stranded at the border.
After being expelled from the United States back to Northern Mexico cities like Ciudad Juárez, the language barrier still hinders their lives at the shelters. Some remain hopeful of getting a hearing in U.S. immigration courts. Still, significant problems await there too, linked to the lack of resources in their native language and the stigma of their indigeneity.
The director of the shelter El Buen Samaritano, Juan Fierro, has frequently noticed the language, cultural and educational barriers that make it harder for Indigenous migrants to adapt to the shelter community.
He said the most prominent challenge Indigenous immigrants face is communicating their needs and the conflicts that arise from cultural differences.
“Sometimes other migrants come with complaints about this particular population. Other migrants want to help them, but they can’t because they can’t understand one another,” Fierro said. “They’ll approach them and say, ‘Hey, you need to take a shower, you need to gather your stuff, you need to keep your child clean,’ for example. They’re very different cultures and things that other migrants do because they already have these customs.”
It is hard for Fierro and volunteers to fulfill the needs of non-Spanish speakers since they can’t properly communicate with them, he said.
Andrea, an Indigenous immigrant from the department of Izabal in Guatemala, struggles with language. Unlike Melinda, the 27-year-old woman arrived at the shelter not knowing a single word in Spanish.
Andrea is able to get by with the help of Alma, another Indigenous migrant from Guatemala, who translates for her from K’ekchi’ to Spanish.
Alma recalled a moment where other migrants in the shelter were blaming Andrea for supposedly making a mess in the bathroom. Alma defended her friend since she couldn’t understand what they were saying about her in Spanish.
”That hurts me, that she’s being mistreated and she can’t even understand,” Alma said. “But what can you do about it? That’s why I tell her that we have to hang in there for our children.”
Migrants from all over the world come to the Juárez-El Paso border, and El Buen Samaritano is constantly adapting its facilities to accommodate the high influx of migrants —first in 2018 with the Central American caravans staying for long periods of time, and now with the growing arrivals of migrants expelled by the United States under Title 42, a controversial U.S. policy that uses the COVID-19 pandemic as justification for suspending asylum laws.
Until recently, speaking English was more common between the staff at El Buen Samaritano and migrants who didn’t speak Spanish.
“We had a migrant from Turkey and he only spoke his native language, but people adapted rapidly and used Google Translate to talk with him,” the pastor said.
Using Google Translate is not possible with the Guatemalan migrants since the Mayan languages are not available in the app. Some translation services online require payments. A free option, Traductor Idiomas Mayas, only translates three Mayan languages and text. With most of this population being unable to read and write, it is almost useless, Fierro said.
Fierro has noticed shyness among the Indigenous migrants, but once they find a friend who can translate for them, their stay at the shelter gets easier.
“I think that the language prevents them from asking because they don’t know how to do it or feel unconfident. It is mostly other people around them who ask for them,” Fierro said.
Fierro said Indigenous migrants are also especially susceptible to crime in Juárez.
“Most of the time they don’t know how much money they have even with their own currency, and they can get easily tricked. They can pay for something and get less change in return,” Fierro said. “And they can’t even complain because they don’t have the vocabulary.”
According to data gathered by the nonprofit organization Human Rights First, there have been at least 1,544 cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping and other violent crimes against asylum seekers in northern Mexico reported between Feb. 14, 2019, and Feb. 19, 2021.
Fierro advises non-Spanish speakers to only go out of the shelter with someone who can buy food and toiletries for them. If they manage to find a job, Fierro also reminds them to make sure they’re getting paid accordingly.
“It is great for them to find some extra work cleaning houses or doing some chores, but we’re very careful and strict on who we send them along with, especially with women. We don’t want anyone taking advantage of them or their work,” Fierro said.
For the Indigenous language speakers who do end up getting their day in U.S. immigration courts, additional challenges remain.
Existing laws regarding language access in the courts are fairly stringent, but advocates say they are not being followed in practice.
“At the level of the government, we still see institutional blinders, to put it judiciously,” Blake Gentry of Indigenous Alliance without Borders said.
Referencing a Clinton-era executive order, Gentry said federal agencies have a legal obligation to have a system in place for offering meaningful language access to asylum seekers. In complying with this executive order, the system should have a means for assessing language needs and capacity issues, but when inter-agency tracking of language populations isn’t happening, this ability to determine their needs falls by the wayside.
“The problem is, this is all seen as an individual aberration,” Gentry said. “Individuals show up at the U.S. border, (CBP) never identifies them as populations coming from Indigenous nations. And because they don’t, it’s all done on an individual basis. But the language of (the executive order mandating language access) isn’t just about individuals — it’s about the class of people who speak Indigenous languages. So the structural problem is still there.”
Department of Justice spokesperson Rob Barnes said that “(the Executive Office for Immigration Review) endeavors to accommodate the language needs of all limited English proficient and non-English speaking individuals appearing before the immigration court, including for individuals who speak uncommon languages,” but was unable to provide information as to whether there are any DoJ staff interpreters who speak Indigenous languages.
Indigenous languages comprise a significant portion of languages for which EOIR requires a court interpreter: at least three Indigenous languages were in the top 25 languages in immigration courts from 2015-2018, with numbers increasing in recent years. Additionally, “UNKNOWN LANGUAGE” is consistently listed in the top five languages for this same dataset.
A recent report by the Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse found that, among the pending MPP cases as of January 2021, over 40 languages were represented among migrants, with numerous Indigenous languages represented.
A wide range of problems can occur for Indigenous language speakers as they navigate immigration courts.
“I’ve certainly seen cases where at a certain point, people are pressured to get by in another language like Spanish, or even people pro se who are just simply never able to submit their applications for relief and they’re removed even though they have viable defenses in the court,” said Leah Rodriguez of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.
“I’ve witnessed judges go forward in the wrong language or with the wrong interpreter, I’ve seen cases that were denied as a matter of credibility, when in fact it was just an interpretation issue. The judge says, ‘Oh, you’re changing your story.’ But it’s actually interpretation,” she said.
Gentry said the irony of Indigenous language access problems in the courts is that, among U.S. immigration institutions, the courts are where it is being most actively addressed.
“EOIR is the end result where you’re going to see the best attention paid to this problem, as bad as it is,” he said. “The other thing that just kills me is that, those are just the people who make it to asylum courts. If you don’t make it to asylum courts you don’t show up in (EOIR’s) stats. What would be those barriers for people not coming up or not getting to asylum court: exclusion of indigenous language speakers in the U.S. immigration system.”
Gentry said the need for a structural overhaul is urgent and growing.
“The same need just repeats itself over and over and over, in everything that we see. I’m a broken record on this because the record is broken,” he said.
For Juanita Cabrera Lopez of the Mayan League, the combined result is the invisibility of indigenous people in the U.S. immigration system.
“We have been persecuted because we are indigenous, which means that to survive, a lot of us have hidden our indigenous identity. But then in addition to that, outside factors deny who we are, so between (those two things), our identity and our right to exist as Indigenous people gets absolutely lost,” she said.
Many Indigenous immigrants at the shelter in Juárez still hold onto the hope of reaching their destinations in the United States, despite all the obstacles they’ve faced.
Melinda said they had nothing in their hometown Joyabaj — no home, no job, no education. For the well-being of her family, she wants to cross to the United States. and be with her sister in Arkansas where she can give them estudios, meaning an education and “a future.”
“Without a job we can’t give them estudios, pay for books, pay for schools,” Melinda said. “Without studies there are no jobs.”
Melinda misses Guatemala very deeply, but more than anything she misses her mother. She remembers mixing the dough for tamales chapines— Guatemalan style tamales— with her mother and selling them to make some money.
She laments that her 2-year-old son Samuel will grow up without having any memories of Guatemala. In contrast, her 7-year-old son Diego remembers their home country and often asks her when they’re going back to see his grandmother.
“We have to wait. It’s for your own good,” Melinda recalls saying to her son. “Over there I will find a job while you study and try your best.”
Cover photo: Migrant youth play games on a phone at El Buen Pastor shelter in Juárez. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)