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Call for release of all speakers of Mayan languages

The Honorable Jeh Johnson, Secretary
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20528

The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001

Dear Secretary Johnson and Attorney General Holder,

Among the hundreds of women and children who are detained by the Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) in remote locations, are a number of people whose first language is an indigenous one, and who speak little or no Spanish or English.

Refugees and immigrants who are native speakers of variants of Ki’ché, Mam, Kaqchikel, Q’anjob’al, Tz’utujil, and other Mayan languages, when detained by ICE in Karnes City, Hutto, Pearsall, or other non-metropolitan areas, have no effective access to legal information or representation. There are no Legal Orientation Programs or “Know Your Rights” presentations either. There seem to be no immigration lawyers (or perhaps lawyers at all) in Texas who speak these languages. Linguistically speaking, these women and children live in virtual solitary confinement. They tend to be detained much longer than other refugees, because they are not able to find lawyers with whom they can communicate. What translation exists tends to be done by bilingual, or somewhat bilingual, Mayan children or other detained refugees.

Of course, such translations in the context of people who may be applying for asylum, withholding of removal, or protection under Convention Against Torture are completely inappropriate. Mothers resist sharing details of abuse, torture, sexual assaults, and humiliation with their children; children and teenagers withhold such information from their parents. It is also possible that members of one family may be, or have been, involved in the persecution of another family’s members, who are detained in the same ICE facility. Confidentiality must be an essential aspect of claims for asylum or related claims for refuge.

Many people suggest that lawyers simply make use of interpretation over the phone or by Skype. ICE facilities, in general, preclude cell phone or wi-fi use by lawyers and paralegals. Even were cell phone use possible, reception would be unreliable in remote locations such as Karnes, for example. Use of phones located in common areas via private companies is neither affordable nor confidential.

The only way that monolingual, or essentially monolingual, speakers of Mayan and other indigenous languages can understand U.S. law, including the process of removal and possible relief from removal, is to allow them these speakers to live in the community with other people who speak their language, and to find lawyers with whom they can communicate. The current practice in which ICE refuses to set bond, or release on their own recognizance, for Central American women and children who have entered the U.S. since June, causes particular harm to speakers of Mayan and other indigenous languages.

This denial of equal protection and of due process offends the U.S. constitution and international law.

For these reasons, we call on you to immediately release on their own recognizance, the alternatives to detention program, parole, or some combination of these means, all refugees or immigrants or other “aliens” whose primary language is an indigenous one and who do not speak English or Spanish, and also to release the children of these speakers of indigenous languages.


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