Indigenous migrants are often overlooked within the immigrant rights movement; however, the recent increase of indigenous migrants arriving at the border has increased the visibility of these diverse communities and emphasized the need to support indigenous-led migrant organizations that provide critical interpretation and translations services.
The barriers that indigenous migrants from Guatemala face as they attempt to apply for asylum in the U.S are illustrated in a January 2020 New Yorker article, “A translation crisis at the border.” The article recounts the long history of U.S. intervention in the region that has led to oppression, land theft, and genocide that continues to force migration from their homelands. In the past year, 250,000 Guatemalan migrants, at least half being Mayan, were detained at the border, fleeing death squads, femicide, corruption, and climate change.
Mistranslation has been a critical issue facing indigenous migrants as many speak little to no Spanish and the lack of adequate interpretation services by the U.S. government has forced migrants to be more susceptible to waiving their asylum rights, separating from their children, and not accessing critical health services that can make all the difference between life and death. The New Yorker article cites Department of Justice (DOJ) data reporting that Mam, K’iche’, and Q’anjob’al were among some of the top languages spoken in immigration courts. The same article cites ACLU data showing that about 800 of the more than 5,000 parents separated from their children were also deported without their children and that many of these parents were indigenous migrants.
Advocacy and support for these indigenous migrants is critical in addressing these issues. One group advocating for indigenous populations in Los Angeles is Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo (CIELO) who is gathering and publishing data on indigenous migrants. These diverse communities are typically left out of data collection efforts or lumped into the broad Latino category. According to CIELO’s data map based on a survey of the organization’s Undocu-Indigenous Fund recipients, there are nearly 11,000 indigenous residents, originating from 30 indigenous communities located in Mexico and Central America that speak about 20 distinct indigenous languages.
Read about Indigenous communities and language diversity in an L.A. Times article featuring CIELO’s work here. To learn more please refer to indigenous-led and other groups advocating for and supporting indigenous migrants, like Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional (Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations) and Espacio Migrante. Read more about the root causes of migration for indigenous migrants from Guatemala and the work of grassroots translators in the Bay Area in The New Yorker article. To learn more about the systemic invisibilization of indigenous migrants and recommendations for philanthropy, read Odilia Romero and Xiomara Corpeño’s article in the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s journal, here. Read recommendations to visibilize the experiences of indigenous migrants through the pandemic here.
Photo credit: Stefan Lac