Potentially deadly element of Southern border policy: The language wall

With a government shutdown now dominating the news, the current administration plan to build a wall to close the border with Mexico is once again the center of attention. President TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE’s border policy, with or without wall, has already caused several humanitarian crises, not to mention diplomaticenvironmentallegalfederal spending, and public health ones. We can add language to that list.

Immigrants apprehended at the border and asylum seekers face a more formidable barrier than artistically-designed steel slats: lack of access to adequate translation and interpreting for those with limited English Proficiency.

There are increasing concerns that miscommunication may have played a role in the death of 7-year old Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin. Border Patrol agents had her father, a Q’eqchi’ speaker, sign a form in English after reading the questions to him in Spanish, a language he partially understands. By signing the form, Jakelin’s father stated that his daughter was in good health. But because his comprehension of Spanish is only partial, it is not clear whether he fully understood the agents’ questions or the implications of what he was signing.


The lack of adequate language services curtails the access of language minorities to basic rights and services, and leaves them vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Leaving cases of outright bigotry aside, language minorities often find themselves confronted with a health care system that is systemically unprepared to treat painaddiction, or aging immigrant populations across language and cultural barriers.

In order to address that vulnerability, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Executive Order 13166 (2000) prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance, and guarantee the right to language assistance for individuals of limited English proficiency (LEP). Jakelin’s case shows that, even without malicious intent, failing to provide that assistance can have serious consequences.

To be sure, Customs and Border Protection, like all federal agencies, has a Language Access Plan in compliance with Executive Order 13166. Most agents stationed along the Mexico-US border speak Spanish. However, not all immigrants and asylum seekers coming from Central America speak Spanish. Many, like Jakelin and her father, speak one or more of the many indigenous languages spoken in Central America.

The legacy of Spanish in Central America is far more complex than it may seem north of the border. For many communities, Spanish remains the legacy of a colonial past, an official language imposed from above but that has not quite replaced indigenous languages. When they arrive in the United States, indigenous speakers are doubly marginalized for not speaking either Spanish or English.

What could Customs and Border Protection do differently? For one, it could stop the cruel practice of holding immigrants apprehended at the border, regardless of age, in “hieleras” (iceboxes), the overcrowded, frigid temporary detention facilities in which undocumented immigrants wait for their case to be processed. But if we are talking just about language, collaborating with volunteer and advocacy groups, or training agents to identify and help individuals with limited proficiency in the most common minority languages would be a good start. CBP has had ample time to plan for this challenge. The situation is by no means new: reports of indigenous asylum seekers facing language barriers at the border were common at the height of the family separation crisis in the summer.

Language can be an effective deterrent, either by action — if nothing else, Trump’s wall is a rhetorical wall, a barrier made of words repeated until it is all we ever talk about — or by omission. We should look for ways to use language to resist certain discourses, but also for ways to keep languages from being suppressed.

Most Americans, myself included, agree that Congress should not waste federal money in agreeing to pay for a wall or for expanding the physical barriers already in place. But it should not overlook the ways in which an administration bent on adopting ever more stringent border policies could erect a language wall by neglecting to provide the required language assistance to asylum seekers and immigrants apprehended near the border, or by failing to oversee whether subcontractors are holding themselves to the standards of Executive Order 13166.

Given the images of children in chain-link pens, it is unlikely these private companies are going out of their way to provide adequate language services.

If Congress wants to keep this administration from building a wall, it should also watch out for a more formidable barrier: language.

Roberto Rey Agudo is Language Program Director in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and a 2018 Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.