WASHINGTON, D.C — Members from Indigenous nations gathered outside the Department of Homeland Security Thursday night in freezing temperatures to hold a vigil for the Indigenous Maya children and youth who have died at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months.
Over the last eight months, three Maya children or young adults have either died under the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or been killed by a Border Patrol agent. They include Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala, of Maya Q’eqchi’ descent, who died of severe dehydration in CBP custody last month; Felipe Gomez Alonzo, an 8-year-old boy Guatemalan boy of Maya Chuj descent, who died of the flu in a New Mexico hospital on Christmas Eve, while in CBP custody; and Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 20-year-old Maya Mam woman who was tragically shot in the head by a Border Patrol officer over the summer.
Gómez Gonzáles’ death, in particular, has haunted the Indigenous community for months. She had been traveling to the United States from the Guatemalan rural village of San Juan Ostuncalco with hopes of finding work to help pay for her education when she was killed by a border agent who opened fire on a group of undocumented immigrants in Texas.
The details of Gómez Gonzáles’ death remain unclear. Border Patrol maintains that an agent responded to a report of “illegal activity” in the border town of Rio Bravo and fired his weapon at least once after a group of people suspected of being undocumented resisted arrest and attacked him “using blunt objects.”
After a witness released footage of the incident, however, CPB canceled a scheduled press conference and released an amended statement in which the reference to “blunt objects” was removed and Gómez Gonzáles was no longer described as an “assailant.”
“According to the agent, the group ignored his verbal commands and instead rushed him,” the amended statement read.
The FBI and Texas Rangers are currently in the midst of investigating the shooting, but immigration activists are concerned justice will not be served. The three men who witnessed the shooting have been deported by U.S. authorities and the two agencies investigating the incident have yet to release a full account, leaving the grieving family without answers.
“We continue to demand that there be a full and complete investigation,” Gilberto González, Gómez Gonzáles father, told the crowd gathered outside DHS headquarters on Thursday, in a phone call from Guatemala. “That the case not stay in impunity. That there be justice for our child. That we continue solidarity. Thank you all for your support.”
Speaking in both Spanish and Mam, a language indigenous to Guatemala, members of the Mayan community on Thursday night also expressed concerns about the unique challenges they face as they immigrate to the United States.
“As we have seen in the cases of our children, many of [those stopped by Border Patrol] couldn’t even understand what was happening, they couldn’t speak Spanish, [though many officials assume they can],” Juanita Cabrera Lopez, Executive Director of the International Mayan League, told ThinkProgress.
Between May 5 and June 9, more than 2,000 immigrant families were stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border. Language barriers between CBP officers and Indigenous families made it difficult to identify families because individuals speak neither English nor Spanish. There are almost no statistics available on the number of detained Indigenous immigrants in detention, but experts are confident the number has skyrocketed recently to reflect the increase in detentions overall.
“There’s certainly been an increase (in Indigenous language speakers),” John Haviland, an anthropological linguist at University of California, San Diego and Tzotzil interpreter, told High Country News. “No question at all.”
The reason for this increase in Indigenous migration is likely due to economic hardship and violence in the Northern Triangle, which includes Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Many of the immigrants from these countries plan to seek asylum in the United States, a process which has repeatedly come under attack by the Trump administration.
Cabrera Lopez noted struggles like land theft were a regularity for Indigenous groups back home. “This struggle…has affected us for more than 500 years,” she said. “And Indigenous peoples have been the most invisible.”