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This essay accompanies the article “We are not ignorant”: Transnational migrants’ experiences of racialized securitization"
n December 8, 2018, 7 year-old Jakelin Caal Maquín died less than one day after arriving in the US, while in Immigrations & Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. She was the first of two Maya Indigenous children from Guatemala to die in ICE custody that month; the second was Felipe Gómez Alonzo, an 8 year-old Chuj Maya on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018. Why are Indigenous children dying in ICE custody? The short answer is that they came with their parents, who did not have the language skills, relationship to state bureaucracies or support of their own consulate that would help them navigate the bureaucracy of asylum. Scholars have yet to account for the rising proportion of Central American asylum seekers arriving to the US, but immigration from Mexico has steadily declined while immigration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has risen. Research on Mexican immigrants who speak an Indigenous language suggests that ICE is less likely to provide medical care to them than Spanish-speakers. While I agree that language is a key barrier to accessing legal and medical services in immigrant detention, the reasons for Indigenous children’s death in US immigration detention are more complex.
If the problem were nothing more than the language barrier, it would mean that if Q’eqchi’ Mayas knew their rights and claimed them using the correct words in the right language, Guatemalan, Mexican and US state agencies would respect their rights. Indigenous asylum seekers, however, know that rights on paper are far different than rights in practice. My Society and Space paper takes its title directly from a deported youth who told me that “we are not ignorant” – he knew his rights, but immigration authorities did not grant him access to a youth advocate, a phone call to his parents or even a visit from the Guatemalan consulate. Border patrolling brings together racial profiling and passing with pernicious consequences for Indigenous migrants. In the paper, I argue that migrants are differentially vulnerable to deportation based on perceived race, gender and class. So, rather than ask for language services in Q’eqchi’, deported Q’eqchi’ migrants told me that they attempted to speak only Spanish as a way to minimize discrimination and harm while traveling through Mexico and the US. Beyond teaching Indigenous asylum seekers to know their rights, advocates must think through the ways that interlocking state racisms make it difficult to claim those rights in practice.
Three days after Jakelin Caal died in his agency’s care, US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Kevin McAleenan testified before the US Senate Judiciary Committee about CBP’s ability to manage families and children, but failed to mention her death. Only after reporters discovered her death and called CBP for a statement did CBP acknowledge her death, then claiming that she “reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days.” Moreover, US Department of Homeland Security officials claimed that her father, Nery Caal, was with the young girl as she had a fever that reached 106 degrees but did not tell agents that she was sick. The US government said that Mr. Caal signed a document in English that absolved them of responsibility. The US Department of Homeland Security blamed him for dragging his daughter for hours through the desert and across the US-Mexico border to her seemingly inevitable death while in the care of US Customs and Border Patrol. The Mexican government offered no comment to the media, nor were representatives asked for one, despite DHS’s claim that the child’s travel through difficult desert conditions in Mexico contributed to her death. For its part, the Guatemalan consulate both released the family’s personal information, unleashing a public media storm into their grief, and stated that Mr. Caal had “no complaints about how Border Patrol agents treated him and his daughter” as she died.
On the one hand, some people blamed US imperialism with little acknowledgement of the role of Mexican or Guatemalan states. On the other hand, across social media platforms, Jakelin’s family was blamed for placing her in danger with their bad choices. Over the course of weeks, people have learned how to spell her first name (not Jacqueline, but Jakelin), where she is from (rural Raxruhá in Guatemala, not Mexico), and that she is Indigenous Q’eqchi’ (not Quechua). When well-meaning folks repeatedly misrecognized Q’eqchi’ Maya for another Indigenous identity, this amounted to a reproduction of the erasure of Q’eqchi’ identity in an environment of massive state violence. Each of over 20 Maya Indigenous peoples is not simply a variation on a theme, with a slightly different ‘ethnicity’ or ‘dialect’. Moreover, many still abbreviate her last name incorrectly (not Maquín, but Caal). While it may seem like a small mistake to spell Jakelin’s name wrong, when anyone spells the name wrong while processing an immigrant’s paperwork through US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the blame boomerangs back on the immigrant herself. If a CBP agent spells your name incorrectly at intake, or simply doesn’t know how Hispanic last names work, it is the immigrant’s responsibility to demonstrate that she was not attempting identity fraud. If the immigrant is a little girl who does not speak Spanish, let alone read and write English, this expectation is absurd at best.
The frenzy to look at pictures of a little girl and the family who mourns her effectively turns the US gaze away from state violence (Guatemala, Mexico and the US) and towards the choices one family made. The fact that US and Guatemalan governments may have grossly distorted the Caal Maquín family’s choices seems not to matter very much. Still, it bears noting that when Mr. Caal was no longer detained and granted access to appropriate language services, his lawyers quickly disputed DHS claims, noting that Nery and his daughter traveled through Mexico on a bus with food and water. In other words, Jakelin did not hike through the desert for days and did not seem sick when she arrived in the US. Whether or not Jakelin trekked through the desert, did US officials give her water when they took her into their care? When a father takes a young girl on an unknown journey to a far-away place where nobody speaks her language, we should ask why that choice was the best one on hand.
Around the same time as Jakelin died, a man stood waiting at the cruce, an informal stop for all buses turning left toward Raxruhá from south in Guatemala. The man stepped on every bus, calling out, “Is anyone from Candelaria?” Finally, a cautious voice responded, “who wants to know?” The man explained that he was in Port Isabel Detention Center with Pedro for weeks. When he signed his deportation papers and prepared to return to Guatemala, Pedro asked him to get a message to his father-in-law in Candelaria: he was detained in Texas and did not know where his 10-year-old son was. Please send help. Shortly thereafter, I received a new contact request on WhatsApp. Pedro’s family did not know what an Alien Number was, what political asylum meant, or how to find a lawyer. Nobody in Candelaria had spoken to him for over a month, because he didn’t have money to make an international phone call. They were glad I could put money on his account, and hoped I might be able to visit. Then, they were surprised to hear how far away the state of Texas (where he is detained) is from the state of Washington (where I live). Pedro left Candelaria for the United States because he, like over 50 other men in his rural community, lived in fear of capitalist criminalization and prosecution as state racism in land grabbing for ecotourism. While the person who stole land and sowed conflict in the community was a foreigner, he was only able to illegally seize land through racialized privilege that the state recognized. Guatemala legally recognizes Q’eqchi’s as an Indigenous people in its constitution, and the government legally recognizes Indigenous peoples’ right to territorial autonomy (such as through ILO 169). As I show in Green Wars, however, in practice “state agencies are concerned with conservation, archaeological protection, and collaborating with kaxlan landowners—all to the exclusion of poor, Indigenous people” (page 115). Rather than recognize the Candelaria community’s legal property rights, the state has framed them as criminal trespassers on their own land. This is why traveling north with a 10-year-old son who does not speak Spanish is the choice Pedro made.
The choices that people like Pedro, Nery and many others make can only be understood in the structural context of the state violence and racism they navigate. Q’eqchi’s have a history of anti-colonial struggle against repeated land grabs for everything from coffee plantations to mining. During Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996), they suffered an intense decade of genocidal massacres, and some of my friends are still waiting for their UN-approved reparations for the loss of land and life today, more than 20 years after the civil war’s official end. Land is key to Q’eqchi’ life, which is centered on the tzuultaq’a, a hill-valley spirit that animates the land and gives Q’eqchi’s life. Of all Indigenous peoples occupied by Guatemala, Q’eqchi’s have the most territory – and so are most likely to be vulnerable to land conflicts over national parks, African palm plantations, and oil pipelines. Each of these brings an impressive array of international actors who negotiate with the non-Indigenous state for rights against Q’eqchi’ interests, often without their knowledge or consent. Of all Indigenous peoples occupied by Guatemala, Q’eqchi’s are the least likely to speak and write Spanish because they have less access to education. Q’eqchi’s are intensely interested teaching their children to speak, read and write Spanish in order to defend themselves against foreign interlopers (kaxlan) with paperwork that might be used to steal their livelihoods. In summary, Q’eqchi’ Mayas have a long history of state bureaucracies claiming to represent their best interests wielding paperwork and demanding signatures that violate their rights.
Rather than knowing their rights, Central American migrants are struggling to know the bureaucracy. Migrants are punished for failing to wait in line at the correct port of entry, or failing to ask for asylum using the right words in the right language. The problem is that those asylum seekers who fear for their lives, suffer discrimination, and have not been able to access justice through their own states are those who are least able to access ports of entry or know the word “asylum.” Pedro was detained for over one month before a US-based friend called repeatedly and explained to him what asylum meant and how to tell the guards who held him captive that he was seeking it. This was a classic “know your rights” case – asylum seekers are not told who to ask for asylum, what a “credible fear” interview is and how it relates to asylum, if they are eligible to ask for a hearing to be released from detention on bond, or what the toll-free number is they can dial to ask the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to help them find the children that the US government took from them at the border. Now that Pedro has a transnational WhatsApp team, money in his commissary account, and has claimed his rights, not much has changed. Going on his third month in detention: Pedro has talked to his son once, but his son cried the whole time; Pedro has asked to move his son from the 300+ bed facility to a Q’eqchi’ speaking godfather’s house to no avail; and he still does not have a date for his initial pre-trial court hearing.
What happens if you know your rights, but every experience with the state has taught you that they will not be respected? In the context of a 36-year civil war where municipalities like Raxruhá were rife with petty violence punctuated by multiple-day massacres, this is not a speculative question. Lowlands Q’eqchi’s learned that claiming your rights, legal or not, would lead to state-sponsored murder. When deported Q’eqchi’s told me stories of hiding from “choppers” and “motos” bought with US money for use in the Mexican desert, their parents were haunted by the echoes of civil war violence that they barely escaped in their own youth. Instead of drawing on transnational Latinx solidarity as they traveled through Mexico, Guatemalans told me of being harassed by Mexicans in the street and human rights abuses by Mexican state officials. Likewise, when lowlands Q’eqchi’ migrants find themselves in a sterile office building, without any ability to contact friends, family, or a lawyer – or even to speak in their native language – they understand that refusing to sign paperwork is not really an option. You sign, or you sign. The lesson that civil war survivors have learned is that when you are given only one option, you take it.It is crucial to understand that people who are seeking asylum are doing so precisely because their own embassy does not represent their best interests. If you are seeking asylum, one of the key things you must show is that state agencies, like your consulate, will not protect you. The Guatemalan state has not only failed to protect Q’eqchi’ communities, it has perpetrated racialized violence against them, from the colonial period to present-day racialized criminalization decried by the United Nations less than two weeks after her death. When the Guatemalan consulate affirms that a daughter’s death is her father’s fault, this should not confirm his guilt. Rather, the failure of the Guatemalan consulate to ensure the privacy of the Caal Maquín’s family as they mourn and their willingness to blame their own citizen signals a broader pattern of state violence. This violence stretches from Guatemala to Mexico to the US, and will only stop when those of us not behind bars do more than teach people their rights.We must demand that state agencies respect their rights. I believe that the deaths of Indigenous immigrants in detention are part of a political crisis that demands a sustained commitment for social justice, one that we must develop over time and in dialogue with those folks who are most affected by state violence. In my own life, this has meant serving as a country conditions expert in asylum cases, volunteering with a group that works outside the non-profit industrial complex, calling for the abolition of ICE, and showing that I really mean it by participating in civil disobedience to call on progressive cities like Seattle to stop sharing data with the Department of Homeland Security that serves to criminalize and deport youth of color. I seek to respond to the call: When immigrant rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!