Recently, I was in France with a few fellow writers, some of whom spoke fluent French, and some, like myself, who strained to recognize phrases and patterns in the rapid streams of local vernacular that was directed at us.
In my case, I found that in group settings there was little eye contact made with me, unless I was the subject of the conversation, and my language inabilities rendered me somewhat invisible to the French-speaking world.
Language is an extraordinary system of phrases, grammar, syntax and vocal development, that symbolizes the evolutionary gap between humans and animals. Languages carry a history of origin and help decipher and interrogate basic information as well as the cultural context of the world we inhabit.
But since there’s no one language that unites all the people of the world, we find ourselves in situations where we are reduced to communicating using common terms and basic gestures. In that way, language limits and expands our horizons and can be both a connector and disconnector.
This idea of the power of language and how insidiously and subtly it can be weaponized was brought home at a special hearing on the border crisis and asylum seekers in the Bay Area at San Francisco’s City Hall earlier this month.
A presentation authored by Tom K. Wong, associate professor of political science and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UC San Diego, summarized the findings of a study conducted by UC San Diego in collaboration with the San Diego Rapid Response Network (SDRRN) on the intake of over 7,358 asylees at a shelter operated by SDRRN between October 2018 to June 2019.
Wong’s research found that the asylum seekers came from 28 different countries, and spoke 36 different primary languages. Even when the primary language was not Spanish, immigration officials gave 88 percent of asylees instructions about court appearances in Spanish. For those speaking Mixtec or any other indigenous language, as well as languages from other countries, only 0.6 percent were given instructions on court dates in a language other than Spanish.
. This is one way to disempower and demoralize individuals who don’t speak English and/or Spanish and don’t come from countries that speak English or Spanish. “If these families are not provided instructions about their immigration proceedings in a language they can understand, they will not be able to navigate an extremely complex legal process, which may infringe on their basic rights to due process,” Wong wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.
Critics are likely to question how much America should bend to make language accommodations to those who seek entry when they aren’t yet part of the fabric of the country.
This is a fair question to ask, since it could be costly to provide the resources to fulfill a multitude of native languages.
But those living out their lives looking over their shoulders in fear are unlikely to have the resources to learn the languages of countries they are escaping to. And since individuals have far fewer capabilities than entire nations, the onus ends up falling on richer, more stable countries, like America.
Ultimately, the answer rests on whether the aim is to weed out immigrants or for America to serve as a bridge to safety and opportunity by accommodating the cultural, religious and language diversity of those who arrive in states of distress at our borders.
The asylum policy is one that hinges on compassion. America gives refuge to those who are at risk in their countries. Installing language barriers takes away the agency of refugees who don’t speak America’s languages and are therefore unable to advocate for themselves. If border officials are unable to assess the risks that asylees faces, then they’re more likely to dismiss the asylum seekers’ claims, and, in some extreme cases, even further endanger them.
Late last year, Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl, died in US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody. The autopsy report said that the girl died of streptococcal bacterial infection. The girl’s lawyers issued a statement saying that the “report’s findings suggest that Jakelin’s chances of surviving would have been improved with earlier medical intervention.” Immigration activists and academics allege that language issues contributed to Jakelin’s death. It is reported that Jakelin’s father Nery Gilberto Caal, who spoke the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language, was given a form in English to confirm that he and his daughter were healthy.
Jakelin’s death is a rallying call to recognize the need to plug language gaps that exist, especially at the border, even if it is just to ensure the safety of those who come to America for refuge.
And, as I found during my time in France, even when safety is not an issue, language skills have the potential to become a refined lens to the world, taking us out of the selfie mode by offering a plethora of vistas and views to discover.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan