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Report Calls For Better Translation Services After Two Migrant Children Die In Border Patrol Custody

Undocumented immigration children are processed at a Border Patrol center in McAllen.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Undocumented immigration children are processed at a Border Patrol center in McAllen.

A new report calls for improved translation services after two Mayan children from Guatemala, 7-year-old Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin and 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo,  died in Border Patrol custody.

"Little attention has been paid to the fact that both families speak indigenous languages — Q'eqchi', in the case of the Caal family, and Chuj, in the case of the Gómez family," the report said.

The progressive think tank Center for American Progress laid out several recommendations for Border Patrol, including: 

  • Border Patrol officers should proactively assess a migrant's need for a translator once they're custody.
  • Border Patrol officers should be well-trained to identify different indigenous languages.
  • The Department of Homeland Security should set up a dedicated indigenous language interpretation facility 

Investigations into the children's deaths are still underway. A Mexican man also died in Border Patrol custody this week.

After the second child death, policies changed so all kids must undergo health screenings once in custody. But no language-service policies have been announced.  

In 2018,  more children and families from Guatemala were apprehended at the border than from any other country — more than 70,000. That doesn't account for thousands of additional Guatemalan adults who also arrived that year. 

Around half of Guatemalans speak an indigenous language and  an estimated 7 percent don't speak any Spanish.

The Big Bend sector in West Texas on the Mexican border.
Credit Elizabeth Trovall / Houston Public Media
Houston Public Media
The Big Bend sector in West Texas on the Mexican border.

As Guatemalan immigration continues, demand for translators of America's ancient languages continues to rise at the border, in immigration courts and for refugee resettlement programs.

"We've seen a steady increase in the what we term as ‘other than Mexicans', majority of those being Guatemalans," Rush Carter, Border Patrol special operations supervisor for the Big Bend Sector,  previously said.

"With the Guatemalans we do hear more of that indigenous language," said Carter. "Of course our agents are all trained in Spanish, however when they hear something like that it's a foreign language to them."

In 2016, two  Mayan languages were listed among the 10 most commonly used languages in U.S. immigration courts.

This demand for interpreters, combined with low supply and the fact that some Mayan languages are incredibly rare, creates extra challenges for Guatemalan immigrants.


From Houston Public Media

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit .

Elizabeth Trovall, Houston Public Media