May 2022: “Linguistic Refoulement: Exploring the Intersection Between Language and Asylum” 

This month’s feature is a blogpost about the work of Language, Culture and Justice Hub member Katie Becker, who volunteers with Respond Crisis Translation. Becker recently graduated with a Master of Arts in Global Security and Borders from Queen’s University Belfast. Her master’s dissertation, (In)credible Fear: Linguistic Refoulement and Indigenous-Language Speakers at the U.S.-Mexico Border, was inspired by her work as a volunteer Spanish translator and interpreter with Respond. Becker also drew from her volunteer work with Respond’s partner organizations Al Otro Lado and Sanctuary for Families. Thanks to Respond Crisis Translation for permitting us to reprint this blogpost.

In her dissertation, Becker theorizes about the intersection between language and asylum, arguing that the United States asylum system is compromised by what she calls “linguistic refoulement.” She defines linguistic refoulement as returning someone to a dangerous situation when the return is attributable to a lack of language-access protections. “With this term,” Becker said, “I make reference to the principle of non-refoulement enshrined in international and U.S. law. In brief, non-refoulement forbids countries from returning refugees and asylum seekers to places where they are likely to face certain grave dangers. When the government sends someone back because of a language barrier, I call that linguistic refoulement.”

Becker investigated one group of people whom she identified as especially vulnerable to this type of refoulement in the United States asylum system: speakers of languages like Mam, K’iche’, and the hundreds of other Indigenous languages spoken in the Western Hemisphere. She concluded that the U.S. government disproportionately causes Indigenous people to return to dangerous situations because the government fails to meet their language needs.

The vast majority of Indigenous-language speakers seeking asylum are from Guatemala. Others come from Mexico (especially the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas), El Salvador, Honduras, Peru, Ecuador, and other countries in Central and South America. They are fleeing a variety of harms, including gangs, gender violence, religious persecution, anti-Indigenous discrimination, violence related to nonpayment of debts, retaliation for political activism, and expropriation of their lands by multinational corporations.

To better understand these asylum seekers’ experiences, Becker reviewed government language-access plans, analyzed official data, and interviewed language advocates and legal service providers.

“Taken together, these sources painted a very clear picture,” she said. “Many Indigenous-language speakers seeking asylum in the United States are not getting meaningful chances to present their claims.”

Becker explained, “Through MPP (Remain in Mexico) and Title 42 expulsions, the government forces people to wait in Mexico, even though Indigenous-language speakers face elevated threats there. Officials relentlessly pressure people to move forward with their cases in Spanish, perhaps erroneously thinking that Indigenous languages are ‘dialects’ of Spanish. Officials even accuse Indigenous people of ‘faking’ not speaking Spanish. Even when an asylum seeker insists on an interpreter, they may not get one. The government may give them an interpreter who speaks the wrong variant of their language. Indeed, the interpreter may speak the wrong language altogether. Asylum seekers sometimes lose their cases because translation issues cause adjudicators to find them ‘not credible.’ But anyone will look like they are lying if they receive only shoddy translation.

“And so the U.S. sends people back to situations where they face real harm. To add insult to injury, official records classify Indigenous-language speakers as ‘Hispanic/Latino’ throughout the process. Many Indigenous people would describe this as an inappropriate characterization. The data never really capture the fact that people are Indigenous and that they are entitled to distinct language-access services. It’s a travesty.”

Becker continued, “It is critical to understand that this is a systemic failure. Indigenous migration is neither new nor surprising. But the United States has failed to invest in a pipeline of competent and appropriate interpreters. Incredible advocacy groups — including CIELO, the International Mayan League, and Vida Digna, among others — have stepped up to fill this gap and promote access to justice. Even so, the lack of real government support means that many, many Indigenous-language speakers never get to make their cases.”

“What makes Indigenous-language speakers such an important case study,” Becker said, “is that their experiences help shed light on the multiple and varied mechanisms by which the government refouls people on account of language. It’s not always as simple as ‘we’re not giving you an interpreter and we’re sending you home’ — although that does happen. Sometimes the refoulement is subtle but no less pernicious.

“For example, Indigenous-language speakers are often detained while the government looks for appropriate interpreters. This detention can last for months or years. In detention, an Indigenous-language speaker may not have contact with anybody else who speaks their language. Some scholars call this ‘linguistic solitary confinement.’ This linguistic isolation is associated with various psychological harms, including anxiety and psychosis. To be surrounded by people but unable to communicate with them is a very particular type of trauma. Some Indigenous asylum seekers simply give up their claims because they can’t take this indefinite detention a moment longer. They sign so-called ‘voluntary departure’ paperwork — but is their departure really voluntary?”

Linguistic refoulement of Indigenous-language speakers is hard to identify, Becker noted, because of poor government recordkeeping. “In the paper, I show that the Executive Office for Immigration Review undercounts the number of monolingual Indigenous-language speakers in MPP. Moreover, they likely underestimate them by nearly a factor of six. Given that the government does not even identify and record people’s languages properly, it is no wonder that they also do not provide appropriate translation.”

Using a method that she devised, Becker estimated that of the people who had pending immigration cases in August 2021, roughly 7% were monolingual or mostly monolingual Indigenous-language speakers. “That’s one in fourteen cases,” she noted. “And that’s a very conservative estimate. Those people face a heightened risk of linguistic refoulement. We know that the immigration system does an already abysmal job of ensuring language access for Spanish speakers. Indigenous-language speakers stand even less chance.”

Becker’s studies were funded by the Clinton Award for Peace and Reconciliation. In addition, Queen’s University Belfast awarded Becker a school-wide prize for Best Overall Performance based on her dissertation and her other coursework. “It is deeply gratifying to win a prize for my work on this topic,” she said, “because it signals to me that people care about this, that people are paying attention.”