MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – When immigration agents arrested 16 farmworkers in a mass arrest of illegal immigrants early this year, legal advocates raced to find interpreters for some of the men, who spoke only a language called Mixtec.
But by the time an interpreter was found, most of the men were on their way out of the country after signing away their rights to contest deportation – a procedure they might not have understood.
The deportations alarmed immigrant advocates in this agricultural city 60 miles north of Seattle. It also raised questions about the deportation proceedings for people who speak little Spanish or English.
“There is no way they knew what they were signing. No way,” said the Rev. Jo Beecher, of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Mount Vernon, one of the advocates who tried to help the men.
Although federal courts have ruled that immigration proceedings must be translated into the language of the detainee, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has no interpreters in the area who speak Mixtec – a tonal language with several dialects – Beecher said.
The case of the Mount Vernon men also highlights some of the clashes that are becoming more common as the growing community of indigenous peoples from Latin America meets the American legal system.
Indigenous peoples are the direct descendants of the inhabitants who lived in the region before colonial times. They have distinct cultures and languages than their Latino counterparts.
There are about 500,000 indigenous people in the U.S., according to the Bi-national Center for the Development of the Oaxacan Indigenous Communities. That’s only counting people from Mexico, not other countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras.
Between 10 percent and 30 percent of the farmworkers in California are now estimated to be indigenous, a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found. Similar growth has occurred in Washington, Oregon and Florida.
Hundreds of indigenous languages and dialects are spoken in Mexico and Central America, and some of those dialects are drastically different from each other, said Rufino Dominguez-Santos of the Bi-national Center for the Development of the Oaxacan Indigenous Communities.
In the Mount Vernon case, agents quickly recognized that the group didn’t speak Spanish, said Lorie Dankers, ICE’s spokeswoman in Seattle.
But the son of one of the arrested men volunteered to translate, and did so for the two Mixtec speakers who joined 12 Spanish-speaking men in choosing “voluntary return,” an option that lets illegal immigrants leave the U.S. quickly, avoiding detention and other sanctions, such as a 10-year entrance ban to the U.S.
“The supervisor observed the interview; based on the body language, he believes they fully understood,” Dankers said.