Linguistic Isolation: The inability to speak English can limit a person’s ability to participate civically in their communities as well as access information and services.

Insights and Analyses

  • Throughout the state, most immigrants are bilingual and nearly 70% reported speaking English proficiently. Among recent arrivals, or immigrants arriving in the U.S. five years or less, 67% reported speaking English proficiently.
  • In 2018, 26% of immigrant households in California were linguistically isolated.
  • While many immigrant-headed households are linguistically isolated, a larger proportion of households headed by undocumented individuals experience linguistic isolation. Across the state, in 2018, 38% of households headed by someone who was undocumented were linguistically isolated, compared to 28% of households headed by a lawful permanent resident, and 22% of households headed by a naturalized citizen.
  • Targeted efforts for California’s diverse communities are also critical, as Latino and Asian American households experience linguistic isolation in higher proportions. In 2018, nearly 30% of Latino immigrant households and 27% of Asian American immigrant households were linguistically isolated. 

The lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate services for Black immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers impedes their ability to navigate a complex immigration system, particularly at the border.

In 2017, The Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA), Haitian Bridge Alliance (HBA), and The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) organized a Black-led, Black migrant focused delegation to the U.S.-Mexico border to better understand the challenges faced by Black immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers at the border. 

Following this visit, BAJI published Black Lives at the Border, a report uplifting stories and outlining recommendations for improving the conditions of recently arrived Black immigrants and refugees. For example, the report presents the case of Anabelle, a Haitian migrant and mother of six, who migrated to the U.S. due to economic hardship caused by the earthquakes in Haiti. Before arriving in San Diego at the U.S. border, Anabelle traveled from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Mexico. 

Anabelle did not have access to immigration translation services in Haitian Creole, an experience faced by many other immigrants of African descent. As a result, Anabelle could not attend her assigned court appearance and, in her absence, was given a deportation order. The report found that there needs to be massive increase in civil society support and most importantly community based solidarity with Black immigrant and refugee people who are building their support systems in extremely difficult situations. There is a severe need for housing, medical care and culturally competent attorneys and interpreters. Efforts to address these challenges and the scale of the problem need to be led by the Black immigrants organized at the borderDue to these increasing needs, the few Black-led immigrant rights organizations in California that provide services, advocacy, and transition support to recently arrived Black immigrants living in border states are also in urgent need of increased capacity and resources. 

To read BAJI’s full report click here. To access BAJI and USC Equity Research Institute's joint report on the State of Black Immigrants in California, click here.

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). CIELO has also recently started gathering data on indigenous migrants because these diverse communities are typically left out of data collection efforts or lumped into the broad Latino category. Learn more about CIELO’s work and access some of their data 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.

Photo credit: Stefan Lac

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