Discrimination Against Spanish Speakers
On June 14, 2015, then Assistant Secretary of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Sarah R. Saldaña announced the ICE Language Access Plan (LAP). At the onset of this report, ICE presents a series of guidelines for language inclusivity in detention: “It is ICE policy to ensure that external Limited English Proficiency (LEP) stakeholders have meaningful access to its programs, services, and activities by providing quality language assistance services in a timely manner." The LEP stresses the importance of communication and promises “[to identify] and [translate] vital documents into the most frequently encountered languages, [to provide] interpretive service where appropriate, and [to educate their] personnel.”
It seems that ICE is acknowledging the need for linguistic clarity for all immigrants entering their complex system. We might assume that all Designated Immigration Officers, detention center personnel, and other officials will be given training that allows them to either communicate in the language of the detainee or identify the need for an interpreter, whether that be in medical care, for legal aid, or detention center rules. This extensive plan for combatting language differences seems to be systematically sound.
However, we have heard repeatedly from Ingrid that this policy is not being implemented at the Buffalo Federal Detention Center. For much of her two years in detention, there has been no guard on duty who speaks Spanish. Many of the policies regarding work, dining, and communication are never explained to those who don’t speak English. Additionally, all of the available library books are in English and there is only one Spanish channel on the television; Ingrid has also told me that the guards often refuse to allow this channel to be on. Therefore, the discrimination against the Spanish speaking detainees becomes apparent.
Ingrid’s letters further testify to these experiences of language discrimination by both guards and other detainees. In her October 20, 2020 letter, Ingrid recounts an experience between her friend Xiomara (a Spanish-speaking woman native to Honduras) and a guard:
This instance illustrates that not only do the guards refuse to speak Spanish to Ingrid and Xiomara, but the officials also accuse them of “‘playing this game,’” in which they are pretending not to understand English. Ingrid says in a letter about three weeks prior to this event that “the officials here pay more attention to the women who speak English. With them, they are friendly and attentive to everything they say. But if I do exercises, watch television, sit at the table, laugh, or have a friendship with a companion, they get mad at me and speak badly to me in English” (Ingrid Letter 9/30/20).
This differential treatment between English and non-English speaking people causes significant tension. Ingrid explains that her English speaking fellow detainees speak poorly about her to the officials, often blaming her for conflicts, causing more issues for Ingrid, such as loss of privileges to the tablet, her only communication with the outside world. Ingrid concludes, “I feel powerless because I cannot speak English in order to defend myself” (Ingrid Letter 9/30/20). The instances detailed by Ingrid’s letters highlight the difference between the policy and the practice. While ICE promises to provide Ingrid with effective translation services, it is obvious that the officials at Buffalo Federal Detention Center have violated this pledge.
When I am speaking to Ingrid, I do not feel as though we have a language barrier, as love and friendship prove to be universal languages. Ingrid has opened me not only to the world of Spanish but also to one of compassion and openness. Although my Spanish speaking skills are quite elementary, Ingrid ends every call by telling me, “Congratulations, you spoke Spanish very well today. Give hugs to you and your sister for me,” to emphasize how much our friendship means to her. Communicating in Spanish puts me in a very vulnerable position; however, Ingrid makes our video chats a positive space for me to learn and grow in Spanish and as a person.
Additionally, talking to Ingrid gives me the opportunity to take on a new role, one where I realize I do not have the capacity to give her all that she deserves. Although I cannot be of legal assistance to her, Ingrid highlights the importance of conversation and friendship to get through hardship. Through communicating with her, I realize that we are not as different as politicians make us out to be. Ingrid and I, although from different countries, both want the opportunity to connect with people and consequently spread love and acceptance.
Together, Ingrid and I laugh and bond over my mispronounced words, and she helps teach me colloquialisms from El Salvador so that we can speak as if we are family. Ingrid tells me that we are family, she says: “Jane is my mother and I am your older sister”. She reminds me about the importance of my studies, advises drinking lemon water with honey for my cough, and constantly asks about my well-being. Ingrid grew up as the caretaker and sole provider for her mother and younger sister Abigail, and our connection is a constant reminder that she has a family at home and in the United States (hopefully her future home). Most nights before bed, Ingrid even calls to say goodnight to me and my sister. Our emotional connection has shown me that family is not defined by last name, or even locational proximity. Instead, family originates from love and care. Ingrid is a kind, beautiful woman whose hard working and inclusive spirit is what this country needs. It breaks my heart to think she is considered illegal on this stolen land.
By Sky Lingo
"Xiomara said, ‘I don't understand English,’ but the official just kept talking in English. ‘I think’, she said, ‘yes, you can speak English.’ Her face said everything. She was furious. She kept pointing at us, yelling. Then she went to get Abi so that she could translate. I was just reading when they returned. She pulled up a chair for Abi, who said (the guard said) that we were supposed to stop ‘playing this game that we were playing.’ Xiomara said, explain what you mean, what game are you referring to?"