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POLITICO: Guatemalan Girl’s Custody Death Highlights Language Issues

— December 19, 2018

The death of a 7-year of Guatemalan girl in federal custody is raising questions about the sorts of communication barriers brought by immigration enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border.

POLITICO reports that the girl’s father signed a form declaring her in good health. But it’s unclear how much of the document he actually understood.

While it was written in English and translated aloud in Spanish by a Border Patrol agent, Jakelin Caal’s father is proficient in neither language. According to POLITICO, the man’s native tongue is a Mayan dialect known as Q’eqchi’.

After Q’eqchi’, Caal’s father’s second language is Spanish.

The unexpected language barrier raises the possibility that something could have been lost in translation when the father-daughter pair were asked about their health and well-being. POLITICO suggests the use of English-only documents only exacerbates the chance of misunderstanding. Even though Border Patrol agents are required to speak Spanish, some migrants nonetheless claim they’ve missed the information presented to them upon arrest.

Pictured: A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle along the the US-Mexico border. Image via Pixnio/Public Domain.

In its article on the linguistic circumstances surrounding Caal’s death, POLITICO reminds readers of summer’s family separation crisis. After a judge ordered the separations ended, some parents ‘voluntarily’ authorized their own deportations, leaving their children behind in the United States.

Various accounts of how this may have happened abound. Some parents say they were coerced into signing voluntarily deportation forms as immigration officials told them it’d be the fastest way to get their children out of detention.

Others say they were simply pressed to apply signatures to English-only forms they couldn’t read and which weren’t adequately explained.

Caal’s situation shows that bureaucratic inadequacies and intentional confusions can have fatal consequences.

POLITICO recounts how the 7-year old and her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, were part of a large group of some 163 migrants arrested on December 6th, close to a border crossing in New Mexico.

Hours after being stopped, the group was loaded onto buses and sent to a nearby Border Patrol station. Before they’d arrived, Jakelin began vomiting and eventually stopped breathing. She died at a Texas hospital, not long after arriving.

Border Patrol officers say they did everything they could to save  Jakelin Caal’s life.

But Caal, notes POLITICO, hadn’t had food or water for two days, but neither malnourishment nor dehydration was detected on an initial health screening performed in the field.

Attorneys representing Caal say it’s “unacceptable” that migrants are asked to fill out questionnaires in languages they may not understand.

“It is unacceptable for any government agency to have persons in custody sign documents in a language that they clearly do not understanding,” they said in a statement.

They also criticized the government’s interpretation of Caal’s journey, saying her father had given her adequate nourishment and taken good care of her throughout the border crossing. They’re asking for an “objective and thorough” investigation into the circumstances and to determine whether officials meet the standards needed to detain and transport children.

Tekandi Paniagua, the Guatemalan consul in Del Rio, Texas, said he’s spoken to Caal’s father, who had no complaints about how Border Patrol agents had treated him or his daughter.

Paniagua says that Caal—like many of Guatemala’s impoverished indigenous—speaks broken Spanish.

And Paniagua says that the elder Caal fits a common pattern—he speaks Spanish, but doesn’t understand the language well enough to communicate without a Q’eqchi translator.


Child’s death highlights communication barriers on border

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