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“A Translation Crisis at the Border”: U.S. Immigration Courts Are Failing Mayan-Language Speakers

Web ExclusiveJanuary 09, 2020
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As record numbers of migrants seek refuge and asylum in the United States, we look at a key problem preventing many of them from getting due process: inadequate translation for indigenous peoples who speak Mayan languages. Over the past year, of the 250,000 Guatemalan migrants detained at the U.S.-Mexican border, more than half are Mayans, and many speak no or little Spanish. Most of them are forced to rely on for-profit translation by phone. A new report in The New Yorker magazine headlined “A Translation Crisis at the Border” profiles grassroots interpreters who are helping immigrants navigate the courts and file asylum claims. We speak with New Yorker contributor Rachel Nolan and Zapotec interpreter Odilia Romero, an indigenous leader with the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations. Romero is a trilingual interpreter in Zapotec, Spanish and English.

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As record numbers of migrants seek refuge and asylum in the United States, we look now at a key problem that’s preventing them from getting due process — in many cases, getting them deported. This is the focus of the new report in The New Yorker magazine headlined “A Translation Crisis at the Border: For migrants who speak Mayan languages, a grassroots group of interpreters is often their only hope for receiving asylum.”

We’re joined from Guatemala City in Guatemala by the reporter and author Rachel Nolan. She’s at the Constitutional Plaza in front of the Guatemala National Palace, the site of countless protests in Guatemala. Rachel also teaches Latin American history at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.

And in Los Angeles, we’re joined by Odilia Romero, Zapotec interpreter, indigenous leader with the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations for over 25 years. Odilia is a trilingual interpreter, in Zapotec, Spanish and English, who recently developed a training program for indigenous-language interpreters. Her family is from Mexico.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Rachel, your piece in The New Yorker is so important, as it lays out this crisis for so many. I mean, the facts are incredible. Guatemala has a population of 15 million people, 40% of them indigenous — almost half. In the past year, a quarter of a million Guatemalan migrants have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. At least half of them are Mayans. Many speak little or no Spanish. And the question is: What happens to them when they get to the border? Why don’t you lay out what you found, Rachel?

RACHEL NOLAN: Well, thank you so much for having me, Amy. In the course of reporting the story for The New Yorker, I found that many migrants who reach the U.S.-Mexico border are not given access to Mayan-language translation at all. In fact, during credible-fear interviews, during which migrants have to lay out why they’re afraid of returning to their country of origin, many Mayan-language speakers from Guatemala are forced to do so in Spanish, which is a language that they do not speak.

So I’ve heard cases of people being deported after signing papers that they don’t understand. I’ve heard cases of families being separated and children isolated, spoken to in Spanish, which is a language that they don’t understand. And many Mayan-language speakers who are attempting to gain asylum, I’ll say — they’re not migrating into the United States seeking work; they’re attempting to access asylum — and they’re only often given access to Mayan-language translation at their final court date, if at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us a story, one of the people profile? This also goes to the horrific issue of the separation of parents and their children, how you begin your piece.

RACHEL NOLAN: Sure. So, I wanted to focus the story — now you can hear the bells tolling in Guatemala City. I wanted to focus this story not just on the Mayan-language speakers who have been the victims of some of these immigration policies, but also on those Mayan-language speakers who are doing their best to help. There’s a large community, of which Odilia is a part — and it’s an honor to have her on the program with me — mostly based in California, although throughout the United States, that are providing Mayan-language translation to immigrants crossing the U.S. border.

And one of those people that I was able to speak with at great length and profile and follow is Oswaldo Vidal Martín, who is a Mam-language speaker. Mam is one of 22 mutually unintelligible Mayan languages. And Oswaldo is based in Fruitvale, which is in the kind of Oakland area of California. And Oswaldo was actually called to the border about a year ago, during the family separation crisis, and asked to interpret for several lawyers at the Texas Civil Rights Project. And he and many other Mayan-language translators went, in both paid and volunteer capacity, to the border.

And one of the families that he encountered was that of Mario Perez Domingo, who was a Mam-language speaker separated from his 2-year-old girl at the border because the Border Patrol had asked — had asked him whether he had paid for a birth certificate for his 2-year-old daughter with whom he was traveling. Now, Mario does not speak Spanish very well. Like many Mayan-language speakers in Guatemala, he speaks enough to go to the store, maybe sell tomatoes in the market, but not to navigate a complex legal interview. And so, like many indigenous-language speakers at the border, he was afraid and was answering yes to many of the questions that he was asked.

And so, in Guatemala, you do pay a very small fee to get a birth certificate. So when he was asked had he paid for the birth certificate of his daughter, he answered yes. And the Border Patrol agent used that answer as supposed evidence that he had paid for a false birth certificate, which was not true. And on the basis of that, he was separated from his daughter for several months. And because Mario only speaks Mam, he was not able to understand what was happening and why his daughter was separated from him. Again, Mam is his primary language, and he speaks very little Spanish, if at all. So he was answering yes, yes, yes, to try to ingratiate himself to the authorities, to try to control was what was clearly a very fearful situation.

And only once Oswaldo, the Mam-language translator from California, arrived on the scene in Texas was Mario’s lawyer able to get all of the details of the case and work toward reuniting Mario Perez Domingo with his daughter, which eventually happened, but they were separated for a number of months because of language issues.

AMY GOODMAN: I think it’s so important to point out that, in fact, he was being honest when he was asked if he paid for her birth certificate. It wasn’t because he got it on the black market, but because in Guatemala you pay a small fee if you want a birth certificate reproduced, and that’s what he meant.

RACHEL NOLAN: That’s exactly right. And I think there’s a common misperception that Central American migrants are somehow lying or exaggerating on their asylum applications. And there’s never been any evidence that that’s the case.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Odilia Romero into this conversation. If you could explain what the crisis you confronted was, what you saw, and how you saw, with this massive crackdown on migrants along the border, that the lack of interpretation was leading so many people to be either deported or separated from their children, and then what you did about it?

ODILIA ROMERO: Well, our experience at the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations — for short, I will call it FIOB — was, suddenly we started getting calls. And a little bit I wanted to tell you the history of interpreting in California for indigenous people started in 1996 and ’97 by the FIOB training Mayans and Mexican indigenous interpreters. So people knew of our existence.

Suddenly, we just started getting these calls. We have: “We need K’iche’. We need Zapotec. We need Mam.” And suddenly everybody’s calling us. We were getting calls from social media, texts. And at that point, you know, we didn’t know what to do, because there were so many. And the agencies will call us and say, “I need Zapoteco.” And I will get on the phone, because they wouldn’t know what kind of — what variant of Zapotec. So I will get on the phone; it turned out to be Chinanteco. They were just getting those calls to us and trying — figuring how to solve a problem, right?

So, some of the things that we went — we went to Texas, actually, and we went to some of the detention centers. And we found out people weren’t getting an interpreter. People didn’t know how to identify the languages. So we launched a campaign, one training more interpreters throughout the U.S. So we’ve been training interpreters in Chicago, in D.C. We’re going to New York this month. In California, everywhere that we can, where these different variants of languages existed. That way, we are able to respond to some of the needs that we’re having at the border and we’re going to continue having at the border.

AMY GOODMAN: Rachel Nolan, in Guatemala City, you talk about the phone interpretation that the government offers and what this means and how it can misrepresent people almost as much as them not being able to understand Spanish at all, because the whole issue at these interviews is the issue of credibility. Talk about the companies that are involved and how a judge understands what’s taking place.

RACHEL NOLAN: Right. So, I was surprised to learn that the major companies who are involved in indigenous-language translation are for-profit. I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised at this stage, but I learned this in the course of reporting. The two major ones are called Lionbridge and SOSI.

And what happens is, when a migrant arrives at the border, either they’re asked to do the entire credible-fear interview in Spanish, which is obviously a major human rights issue and not a question of language justice — I mean, they don’t have access to their language of origin — or, if the Border Patrol agent realizes that they really don’t understand the questions that are being asked of them, they’ll call a for-profit indigenous-language translator. They’ll call one of these for-profit companies and ask to have a Mam-language speaker or a K’iche’- or Kaqchikel-language speaker.

The problem is that there’s not a whole lot of control or training for the translators who operate for SOSI or for Lionbridge. I spoke to many interpreters who told me that there’s not enough control, there’s not enough professionalization. Anyone can call and take the test.

In fact, Oswaldo Vidal Martín, who’s the focus of my story for The New Yorker, told me that he took the test for one of these for-profit interpretation companies and inserted some text, which you cannot do. You can’t add bits and pieces to a story, if you’re the interpreter. You must just translate what you’re hearing. And so he added a bit of text to see if anyone was really checking the answers before allowing indigenous-language speakers to translate for these for-profit companies. And he was — he passed the test. He was allowed to translate in any case, is what Oswaldo told me.

So I have major concerns about the sort of reliability and the sort of lack of uniform quality. I’m sure there are many very qualified interpreters working for these services, but I think it’s quite a mix.

And as you so rightly point out, the credibility of the asylum seeker is a part of the judge’s determination on the case. This was told to me by people at the Centro Legal de la Raza in Fruitvale. This was told to me by various people who are immigration lawyers and activists. And if there’s no in-person interpretation, it’s very difficult to create that sort of sense of credibility for the judge who’s deciding the case or for the Border Patrol agent who’s deciding whether the migrant is going to pass the credible-fear interview or not, and even pass to be able to seek asylum in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Rachel, you give one example of a mother who was held in detention, who told non-Guatemalan interpreters that she had trouble in Guatemala because of her “blouses,” her huipil. And, you know, that sounds to someone like it’s not a big deal. She has trouble, what, because of her clothes? But you explain what actually — when you don’t say that literally, what it means. And it also goes to the issue of discrimination that indigenous people face and their concern when they come to the border. Explain what she meant.

RACHEL NOLAN: Sure. So, a former volunteer at Dilley, which is a major detention center in Texas, known to activists as “Baby Jail” because families are held there, told me that she sat in on a credible-fear interview where a non-Guatemalan translator was translating for a indigenous-language-speaking Guatemalan woman, who was trying to explain that because of her huipil, because of the woven blouse that she wears as an indigenous woman, she’s discriminated against in her country of origin. This would be clear to anyone who had spent any time in Guatemala. However, because the translation was not adequate, the translator interpreted the word huipil as “blouse.” And if you say in English, “I’m discriminated against because of my blouse,” of course that makes no sense. You need the kind of deep cultural knowledge and context that only an indigenous-language interpreter or someone very familiar with Guatemala can provide.

There was another interpreter, who I interviewed, Norma Calmo in San Francisco, who told me that sometimes they, the older generation of interpreters, have to pass this cultural knowledge on to the younger interpreters, who have mostly been raised in the United States, because while they may have the language skills, they also need the cultural knowledge, that some of their elders can provide, in order to be able to best translate some of these asylum claims.

AMY GOODMAN: So, go to the issue of how the history of racism and discrimination against indigenous people in Guatemala, where you’re speaking to us from, from the main square in Guatemala City — how this discrimination impacts the crisis. You write that some asylum speakers tell officials, for example, they speak Spanish, when they don’t.

RACHEL NOLAN: Right. So, what I think a lot of people in the U.S. are not aware of, and should be, although the listeners of Democracy Now! hopefully are, is that there was a genocide in Guatemala of the Mayan people in the early 1980s. There was a 36-year civil war from 1960 to 1996. Mayans were targeted ruthlessly by a U.S.-backed military government. Two hundred thousand people died, and the vast majority of them were Mayan people.

And so, it’s kind of shocking to me that that history is not taken into account when considering asylum claims in the United States. Interpreters told me that racism and discrimination against indigenous people is so ingrained here in Guatemala that they hesitate to even put racism as part of their asylum claim, because it’s just such a part of daily life. So, interpreters, such as Norma or such as Oswaldo, have to tell them, no, racial discrimination is one of the bases on which you can make an asylum claim — although I suppose it’s not the interpreters that tell them that, it’s the lawyers; the interpreters really, truly strictly have to translate word to word.

But it’s important to take into account the long history of violent discrimination in Guatemala in order to understand why migrants might, at the border, try to get by in a language that is not their own. People who speak Mayan languages in Guatemala, who can’t sort of eke out daily interactions in Spanish, are discriminated against virulently. And Guatemalans have every reason to believe that the same thing will happen to them in the United States, if they don’t at least appear to speak Spanish.

AMY GOODMAN: Odilia Romero, I wanted to go to this issue of the for-profit, over-the-phone translations that take place and how it jeopardizes the legitimate asylum claims of so many indigenous people. If you could lay this out for us and then talk about the philosophy behind your translation, interpretation service?

ODILIA ROMERO: When a person is not able to tell their story in their own language, you minimize your chances of getting an asylum. And it’s important because, you know, the Western world, the way you see immigration displacement is very different from us. So if we’re not able to convey this message, I mean, the chances are zero, because we don’t have —

And these for-profits, they do not care. I took the test with one of the companies. And as an ethical interpreter, I know I did not pass the test. But when they came back with the result, they said, “Excellent, you’re ready to go interpret in immigration court in Zapotec.” And I asked, “Well, how did you check? Like, how do you know that I was interpreting adequately?” And they told me, “We have a methodology, so you’re good to go.” So then we had our other trilingual interpreters take the test. And they all, being ethical and being trained by us, were like, “We did not pass this test. We are not going to go do it.” So, they do not care there.

And one of the things for us is the way that interpreting was developed was by Spanish-English interpreters. And nobody thought about us on how to develop a manual, on a code of ethics. Nothing was thought within us when these interpretation rules were developed.

And, you know, some of the things for us as an indigenous interpreter, we were seeing, well, these aren’t making sense to us. We cannot interpret word per word. In the case of asylum, in my language, I will have — I will have to say that you can — you have to leave, because you could no longer be here because you’re afraid that someone within this community or within this pueblo is going to hurt you, right? And if I say “refugee,” I’m afraid for my life that someone’s going to kill me. So they’re two different things. So, if our interpreters do not know the difference between asylum and between refugee, they will not be able to convey the message. So we have to — so we have to train them what are these words, because a lot of these pro-profit language agencies, all the interpreters that they have, they borrow Spanish — reshnabo [phon.], asilo, reshnabo [phon.], or refugio. That’s not being said anything to that individual or to that detainee, as opposed to, you know, [speaking Zapotec], which is a very different thing than just reshnabo [phon.], asilo.

So, that’s at the level we’ve gone in our language program to talk about how do we think about these words. How do we think from the immigration language, to the court language, to the medical language? How do we put it into our words? How do we describe it, right? Because it is asilo, asylum. It’s very easy to just translate from Spanish, interpret from Spanish to English. However, for us, it’s very descriptive, so we have to train our interpreters.

But the for-profit language agencies, it’s not about the human rights of the detainees. It’s about making money, who gets the bid. I’ve gotten calls from these companies: “Can you just take the calls?” “I can’t, because I don’t know what variant of Zapotec it is.” “Just take the call. Zapotec is Zapotec.”

So, what we’re doing is training from a very different point as the standard models that they exist in the Spanish-language, Spanish-interpreting schools. We had to develop our own curricula. We had to develop our own glossary. We had to develop everything for ourselves as indigenous people. So it’s a lot of work.

But I think it’s so important that we’re trained, because the life of a person depends on us as the interpreters. If I go to a hospital and I’m not instructed how to give my child a medicine in my language, I might put him at risk. If I go to the court and I don’t know how to say “asylum” and I don’t understand the court system, I could be that tool to deport the person.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have to understand as much Western culture and what’s happening here in the United States as you do indigenous culture.

ODILIA ROMERO: Yes, you have to understand the Western culture very well and then be able to convert it to an indigenous world, in the same way an indigenous worldview to the Western world.

I will tell you about a case about a man that his child was taken away. And he told me in Zapotec, “When they took my children away, the tears just fell out of my eyes and my face like the rain in August in our region.” If I interpret that literally, it doesn’t make any sense to Western world, right? But these are the way, in the case of Zapoteco, is how he told me. “And when I finally was on the bus, the tears just popped out, like the hail after the rain.” And that doesn’t make any sense, because the sentences are not very clear. So I need to be able to convert that into the Western world. And this man, when his child was taken away, I mean, he didn’t know. He agreed to meet these — this was at the Department of Social Services. He went there because they had called the police on him, because the child wasn’t growing. And when they got there, they just like, “OK, sign these papers.” The kids were taken away, and he didn’t know what happened.

And so, we need to know both worlds, like what do the Department of Social Services do, what is the immigration languages, what is the vocabulary. Otherwise, we’re not being useful to indigenous people as interpreters. And we really have to be ethical about it and be honest if I don’t know the word.

But then there’s the other issue that we have, is our biggest ally or our biggest enemy will be the Spanish-English interpreter. If they notice that we’re not making coherent sentences, they should stop us and ask, “Are you understanding what asylum is? Can I explain it to you?” as opposed to just continuing. And I mention the Spanish-English interpreters because there are very few trilingual interpreters in the U.S. Most of them are bilingual, so they have to work with a relay interpreter, which is a Spanish-English interpreter, and that makes it much more difficult. And if that Spanish and English interpreter just continues to interpret it without questioning, if they’re seeing that we’re borrowing a lot of Spanish words, they should stop us. And this is who you have to work with. So, instead of saying, “This interpreter is not doing their interpreting adequately,” stop and say, “How can I help you? Like, how can I explain asylum for you? Do you know where, you know, the calendar is in immigration court?” So, we have a lot of challenges, so we’re trying to solve them little by little.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go to the issue of deaths in Border Patrol or ICE custody, one after another, so often the case of indigenous people. Last December, Jakelin Caal Maquín, a 7-year-old Maya Q’eqchi’ girl from Guatemala, died of an infection while in the custody of Border Patrol just two days after crossing into the United States with her father in the remote desert of New Mexico to apply for asylum. Her family said Jakelin was previously in good health. Altogether, since December 2018, at least five indigenous children from Guatemala have died in the custody of U.S. immigration agents. On Christmas Day last year, over a hundred people gathered in the impoverished mountain village of San Antonio Secortez for Jakelin’s funeral. This was over a year ago. This is her uncle, José Manuel Caal, speaking about the reasons Jakelin’s father fled Guatemala with his small daughter.

JOSÉ MANUEL CAAL: [translated] It’s because of the poverty that people are migrating away from here. There are no opportunities here. The poverty we live in, the crops we grow aren’t enough to support a family.

AMY GOODMAN: In an interview with Al Jazeera, Jakelin’s family said they survive from subsistence agriculture and farming crops like corn, which has been greatly affected by the drought. Q’eqchi’ territory throughout eastern and northern Guatemala is also now largely in the hands of multinational corporations, for palm oil, mining or wealthy ranchers. This land inequality, food insecurity and displacement have fueled migration, particularly from Guatemala in farming and indigenous communities. Rachel Nolan, if you could start by talking about Jakelin’s case and the fact that she was indigenous, and then how this relates to these larger issues?

RACHEL NOLAN: Sure. Thank you so much for bringing up her case. It’s truly tragic. And she’s a member of the Q’eqchi’ community, which is an indigenous group that did not migrate previously. They’re known in Guatemala for not migrating to the United States. Historically, they have not. But because — as you mentioned, because of international mining encroachment on Q’eqchi’ land, also because of palm oil plantation encroachment on Q’eqchi’ land, communities are being displaced.

Also, I want to clarify — the uncle so rightly said that they’re engaged in subsistence farming and are so poor that they’re going to the United States. I think often in the United States that’s misinterpreted as they’re economic migrants. No, this is a perfect storm of ethnic discrimination, climate change and other factors that are pushing Q’eqchi’ people off their lands. Something that’s often not well understood in the United States is the extent to which drought is affecting Guatemala, especially in indigenous communities. I drove through some of these areas this summer in order to report for this story, and you see entire cornfields scorched, burned. Farmers tell you, ”La tierra ya no da,” “The earth is not giving anything anymore.” You plant a seed, you water it, and you can’t get enough crops to feed your family with the basics of the Guatemalan subsistence diet, which are corn and beans.

And then all of these issues for migrants such as Jakelin Caal Maquín and her family are exacerbated upon reaching the U.S. border in their attempt to migrate, because they can’t encounter people who speak their language. Jakelin Caal Maquín’s father speaks very limited Spanish. And I spoke with a Guatemalan consular official when I was reporting the story, whose name is Tekandi Paniagua. And he told me that shortly after Jakelin so tragically died in Customs and Border Patrol custody, he was called to the scene in order to speak with her father. And Jakelin Caal Maquín’s father spoke such limited Spanish that Tekandi Paniagua, who is Guatemalan but is Spanish-speaking, had to call a Q’eqchi’ interpreter, which, thankfully, he had. It’s a friend of his who lives in Guatemala, who he was able to call and who does translation on a volunteer basis for him. And so, Tekandi Paniagua, this consular official, was able to call the Q’eqchi’ translator, communicate with Jakelin Caal Maquín’s father immediately after the tragic death of his daughter.

And what the father told the consular official was that he had been read out documents — he had signed documents in English saying that Jakelin Caal Maquín was in good health before her death, and he was only read out those documents in Spanish, not in his language, not in Q’eqchi’. So, Trump has since tried to blame Jakelin Caal Maquín’s father for signing those documents, saying, “Well, if the father said that his daughter was healthy, the United States government shouldn’t assume any of the blame.” But, of course, across a language barrier, that kind of argument is impossible to make.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip of the story of Claudia Gómez González, a 20-year-old indigenous woman from Guatemala, who was shot in the head by a Border Patrol agent as she crossed into the United States at the Texas border, May 2018, about six months before the death of Jakelin. This is Claudia’s mother, Lidia González.

LIDIA GONZÁLEZ VÁSQUEZ: [translated] “I’ll save some money,” she said. “I’ll earn money for my studies,” she said. But, unfortunately, she was unable to do that. My poor little girl! My little baby! No, no, no. This can’t be. She’s gone, my baby. That’s how it is. I want justice for my girl, because it’s not fair for them to do this. … Now, if people are able to help me retrieve my baby’s body as soon as possible, that’s what I want. We can’t do anything else now. She’s dead. She’s dead.

AMY GOODMAN: So that is Claudia Gómez González’s mother, the 20-year-old young woman, indigenous woman from Guatemala, shot in the head by Border Patrol agent as she crossed into the U.S. Rachel Nolan, if you could talk about her case, as well?

RACHEL NOLAN: Sure. This is a case that is obviously tragic. I mean, she didn’t even have a chance to encounter the language barrier, because she was tragically killed before she even was able to make her claim in the United States.

One thing that I want to point out that’s curious, that I didn’t report on, but I would like better answers for, is why the Guatemalan government hasn’t done more to really ask the U.S. government for details about these deaths, or — I mean, it’s just curious to point out that the Guatemalan government has recently signed a third party — a so-called safe third party agreement with the United States, under which the first asylum seekers have been sent back from the U.S. border to Guatemala to await their asylum claims being addressed. A Honduran was the first man to be flown to Petén, which is in the kind of jungle region of northern Guatemala. And this has actually created relatively little outrage in Guatemala, and the Guatemalan government has done relatively little to kind of push investigation into the cases of these indigenous children who — or, teenagers, in this case, who have died either in U.S. custody or upon crossing the border.

And what I would like to, you know, return to and point out again is the kind of racism of the Guatemalan state and the feeling that migrants, particularly indigenous-language-speaking migrants, are less than. And that’s something that’s a persistent problem not just in the United States, where indigenous-language migrants aren’t getting proper translation and services, but also in their country of origin, also in Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we wrap up and as you stand there in Guatemala City, Rachel Nolan, if you could talk about what most surprised you as you did this piece for The New Yorker, as you did your research, “A Translation Crisis at the Border,” and what you feel, what are people saying, needs to happen now?

RACHEL NOLAN: Sure. I mean, I began reporting this story because it’s something that’s very obvious if you come frequently to Guatemala, as I’m lucky to be able to do. Once you step off the plane, you see that about half of the population is indigenous. The census officially says it’s 40%, but that’s self-identification in a country that is quite racist, as we’ve said. So probably it’s more like half of the population is indigenous. So I began to wonder: What happens to indigenous migrants when they try to cross the border?

And in the course of reporting this story, I suppose what surprised me most was how underreported this has been. The Associated Press has reported on it somewhat, some other news outlets. But for the most part, I was shocked at the extent of the problem, frankly.

When I called Lee Gelernt of the ACLU and asked him, you know, “To what extent are the issues that are affecting all Central American asylum seekers in the United States affecting indigenous-language speakers?” he said, “It’s enormous. They’re disproportionately affected. All of the problems that Spanish-language asylum seekers face are exacerbated if they speak Mayan languages.”

So, just to give one example, when we were speaking on the phone, Lee Gelernt of the ACLU told me that of the kind of worst cases of families that were separated at the border under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy — and I will remind everyone that that policy is officially over, but the separations are ongoing. At least 900 families have been separated since the official end of that policy over a year ago. But Lee Gelernt of the ACLU told me that of those over 4,000 families that were separated — and one parent, at least, was deported back to their country of origin without their child — of those 4,000 cases, Lee Gelernt of the ACLU estimated that 10 to 20% affected Mayan-language-speaking Guatemalans. That’s an enormous — that’s not just of the Guatemalan asylum seekers. That’s of all of the families separated. So, the kind of scale of the problem was what most surprised me when I began reporting this story.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much, Rachel Nolan, for joining us, teaches Latin American history at Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. We’ll link to your article in The New Yorker magazine headlined “A Translation Crisis at the Border: For migrants who speak Mayan languages, a grassroots group of interpreters is often their only hope for receiving asylum.” And I want to thank Odilia Romero, the Zapotec interpreter based in Los Angeles, indigenous leader with the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations for a quarter of a century. She’s the first woman to be elected general binational coordinator of the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations, a trilingual interpreter in Zapotec, Spanish and English, who recently developed a training program for indigenous-language interpreters. Thanks so much for being with us. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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