08 Oct
  • By Theresa DeSouza
  • Cause in

Immigration Liberation Project

Contributed by Greg Norman, UCDF Board Member

UCDF volunteers have organized to support lawyers working pro bono for their asylum-seeking clients in detention centers around the U.S. by filling a particular and urgent need – putting these lawyers in contact with Mayan-language speaking immigration activists in Guatemala to provide interpreting services and help them prepare their Mayan-language speaking clients to successfully pass the first hurdle in the immigration process.

The CARA Pro Bono Project, comprised of national immigration advocacy groups such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association, formed in 2015 in response to the shift in U.S. policy in handling families, primarily mothers and children, who request asylum. Beginning in 2014 under Obama, the U.S. government began incarcerating these families in for-profit, privately owned detention centers until they could pass the first step in the asylum process, an approval from an asylum officer in the initial credible fear interview.

With Trump’s election these private prison companies’ stock prices have soared, the number and length of detentions have increased significantly and the zero tolerance policy was implemented resulting in widespread family separations and the current crisis situation.  We have all been horrified at how this has unfolded, knowing that the majority of these Central American families seeking asylum are fleeing the same kind of violence that challenges UPAVIM and La Esperaza.

However, after volunteering with the CARA team at one of the largest private immigration prisons in Dilley, Texas, UCDF collaborators saw an opportunity to take advantage of UCDF’s history of working with communities in Guatemala.  

The CARA legal team faced the difficulty of not being able to provide legal preparation for their clients who spoke Mayan languages and did not speak Spanish. These mothers (the Dilley prison consists of 2,400 beds for women and  children, also privately run on a for-profit basis) had to face their interview with the asylum officer, who had the benefit of a Mayan language translator by telephone, without any understanding of the process or really any idea of what was happening.  And all of this following immediately after the trauma of fleeing violence in their home communities, traversing Mexico with children in extraordinarily difficult and dangerous circumstances, and then turning themselves in to U.S. border authorities and then being jailed for days, weeks or months.

Sharing this reality in Guatemala led to the creation of a network of Mayan volunteer interpreters who since January 2017 have been providing free services to the lawyers in Dilley (and more recently Karnes City, Texas and Berks, Pennsylvania).  This has enabled the legal teams to provide the same level of legal services as they provide to the rest of their clients and helps insure that Mayan women who do not speak Spanish have a legitimate chance at proving their asylum case.

Volunteers have also interpreted in other key ways such as in taking sworn statements about abuses that detained immigrant families have suffered in the private prisons for lawsuits; in assisting with psychological evaluations for mothers and children who suffered through family separation; and in preparing clients for their hearings in front of an immigration judge after a negative decision on the credible fear interview.

Just reading and hearing about today’s immigration crisis can seem overwhelming, and it is even more so for a desperate and courageous Mayan mother and children who face discrimination in jail and the immigration system due to their lack of Spanish.  If you would like to support our efforts to assist these mothers, please make a donation to UCDF through the regular channels and designate the donations for the “Immigrant Liberation” Project.