Indigenous immigrants face unique challenges at the border

Language barriers mean Indigenous families may be more likely to be split up.

 

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order essentially back-peddling on his administration’s “zero tolerance” border-crossing policy, which has been separating families along the U.S.-Mexico border. Still, hundreds of minors remain locked in detention, isolated from their parents — including Indigenous children from Mexico and Central and South America. 

Trump’s critics often deride the president as outside American norms, but in this case, the United States has set a number of precedents for separating families, particularly for people of color and their children, with its history of black enslavement and forcible removal of Native children to boarding schools. 

Between May 5 and June 9, more than 2,000 immigrant families were stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border. Government agents and agencies have failed to identify Indigenous individuals and families after apprehension and because many Indigenous migrants speak neither English or Spanish, language barriers can lead to human and Indigenous rights violations and increase the risk for family separations.

U.S. Border Patrol agents ask a group of Central American asylum seekers to remove hair bands and wedding rings before taking them into custody on June 12 near McAllen, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images

According to a 2015 report by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), K’iche’, Mam, Achi, Ixil, Awakatek, Jakaltek and Qanjobal — Mayan dialects spoken in what is currently Guatemala and southern Mexico — were “represented within the ICE family residential facilities.” In Latin America, at least 560 Indigenous languages are spoken by 780 different tribal and ethnic groups.

For ICE, Indigenous languages pose a challenge for interpreters. However, data on Indigenous language speakers encountered by law-enforcement officials at the border are held by Customs and Border Protection, which did not respond to requests for those statistics.

“There’s certainly been an increase (in Indigenous language speakers),” said John Haviland, an anthropological linguist at University of California, San Diego and Tzotzil interpreter. “No question at all.”

Reasons for the increase in Indigenous migration range from economic needs to displacement due to violence, but almost no hard statistics are available on anything related to Indigenous people crossing the border.

Haviland provides interpretation services for Homeland Security, court proceedings and medical situations. He said that because of language barriers, child separation — at least in the case of Indigenous families who speak no Spanish or English — had been a common practice, at least anecdotally, even before the Trump administration’s policy.

“A massive number of family law cases basically end up with children being taken away,” said Haviland. “They do it more often with Indigenous migrants than with Spanish migrants, and the reason is very simple: Nobody can actually contradict the claim that can be made by social services that an Indigenous mom is an incompetent mom, because basically, they can’t talk to the mom.”

People are logged in the system by nationality, not tribal affiliation. That means Indigenous legal frameworks, international standards and human rights can be ignored by federal agencies.

“The question of Indigeneity in Latin America is very different than it is in the countries that were colonized by Great Britain,” said Rebecca Tsosie, regents’ professor of law and faculty co-chair of the Indigenous People’s Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona. “We see a community that still speaks their Indigenous language, that still dresses the way they have always dressed. That’s the demarcation that, culturally, they’ve remained distinct.”

In the U.S., she said, Indigeneity is seen more as a political identity.

“So, if youre not an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, eyebrows go up: Are you really Indigenous?” she said. “There are politics around Indigeneity, and it revolves around the United States’ framework. So, the idea is one of exceptionalism.”

This becomes an issue when applying international standards, like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which the United States endorsed in 2010. Under the declaration, Indigenous peoples have a collective status and hold rights as a collective people. It also states that Indigenous people have a right to stay in their family unit without impairment.

“The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People would say that is a violation of their human rights,” said Tsosie. “They have a right to exist in their family unit without the government breaking that up.”

Trump’s executive order calling for an end to family separations at the border makes no special provisions for Indigenous people, but does open the door for families to be held in detention indefinitely. Children already separated from their families will not be reunited immediately.

Trump’s order was widely criticized by Indian Country, from Cherokee Nation’s Principal Chief Bill Baker and Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, to Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

“Congress and the President should take heed of such abhorrent mistakes from the past and actually live the moral values this country proclaims to embody by immediately ending this policy and reuniting the affected children with their parents,” wrote Keel. “Families belong together.” 

Tristan Ahtone is a member of the Kiowa Tribe and associate editor of the High Country News tribal affairs desk.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.