Central American immigrants are routinely denied medical care by U.S. immigration officials if they speak an indigenous language, according to a recent study from the Center for Migration Studies.
Researchers examined more than 1,100 post-deportation surveys with undocumented Mexican immigrants and concluded that access to medical care is a systematic issue.
Immigrants in custody requested medical care for issues including blisters, mild dehydration, lacerations, or migraines. The Center for Migration Studies also documented some severe cases in which care was denied to immigrants, including a young man who was deported with a protruding collarbone.
All told, 23 percent of adult survey respondents claimed they needed some type of medical attention while in U.S. custody. Of those who asked, 37 percent said they were denied. The rate of denial was roughly the same for unaccompanied minors, at 38 percent.
This systemic issue disproportionately affects indigenous speakers, 24 percent of whom said were denied medical care.
The study was conducted after the tragic death of 7-year-old Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin earlier this month.
Jakelin and her father — who are from the small rural village of San Antonio Secortez in Guatemala and primarily speak Q’eqchi’, an indigenous language — crossed the border near the Antelope Wells port of entry in New Mexico on December 6. Less than 24 hours later, Jakelin died of septic shock and dehydration while in U.S. custody.
Despite knowing for over an hour that Jakelin was vomiting and needed medical attention, agents did not immediately present her with water.
“Although Jakelin is from Guatemala and our data refers to Mexican nationals, it is important to note the broader trends in access to medical care while in U.S. custody, as well as issues facing indigenous language speakers,” the Center for Migration Studies report states.
Most immigration law enforcement agents are not trained to speak any indigenous dialects, which exacerbates any translation problems migrants may face.
According to a 2015 report by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Q’eqchi’, Mam, Achi, Ixil, Awakatek, Jakaltek and Qanjobal — Mayan dialects spoken primarily in Guatemala and southern Mexico — were “represented within the ICE family residential facilities.” The World Bank, however, estimates that nearly 600 different indigenous dialects are spoken throughout Latin America.
During the family separation crisis over the summer, indigenous families were routinely misled into signing away their right to reunification with their children because they could not understand the paperwork. Compounding the problem, interpreters are scarce. At one juvenile immigration court in Houston, some teenagers were told that “no one is available” when they requested an indigenous interpreter.
The Center for Migration Studies researchers couldn’t pinpont the exact reasons for the disparity among migrants who need medical attention, but suggested there are a few issues at play contributing to language barriers — like Border Patrol officers receiving training in Spanish, but not in other languages they may encounter.
“These linguistic problems certainly increase the logistical difficulty and complexity of attending to the needs of migrants, especially those with dire medical needs,” the report concludes.