Credit: U.S. Border Patrol

Imagine you’ve been locked away. You’re hungry, scared, and require medical assistance, but when someone arrives, you discover that you have no voice to communicate your fears. Too often, this is the reality for immigrants in Louisiana’s growing number of detention centers who aren’t provided with translation services.

Annual state reporting revealed that Louisiana’s 2017 criminal justice reforms lowered state incarceration rates from a high of almost 40,000 inmates in 2012 to approximately 33,269 in 2018. Sadly, Louisiana has shifted its focus from the mass incarceration of Americans for petty crimes to locking away civil detainees in for-profit correctional facilities.

This new focus aligns with the national demand for increased detainment under the current administration. In May, The U.S. Border Patrol’s apprehension of undocumented persons on the southwest border reached its highest rate in ten years. The Department of Homeland Security responded to OIG’s July report with a letter which made the following statement: “The current migration flow and the resulting humanitarian crisis are rapidly overwhelming the ability of the Federal Government to respond.”

As a resident and local business owner, I am ashamed of the conditions these individuals are being subjected to. Louisiana has almost doubled its detention capabilities through partnerships with the private correctional facilities: River Correctional Facility in Ferriday, Jackson Parish Correctional Center in Jonesboro, and Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe. Collectively, these centers have invested in over 2,500 additional beds for detainees. They offer limited access to translation services which are integral for asylum seekers to successfully navigate the immigration process, seek legal counsel, and acquire medical assistance.

By contracting with Louisiana’s private correctional facilities, ICE can detain immigrants and asylum seekers for an average daily rate of $65. The national average for daily adult detainment at an ICE facility in fiscal year 2019 is $126.52. While ICE may be saving money, Louisiana’s private prisons are turning a tremendous profit by locking away asylum seekers. It is devastating to realize that Louisiana’s tradition of bolstering our economy by imprisoning people of color continues to this day.

”The message is clear: Louisiana is where you’re sent when the government wants you to disappear.”

The remote location of most of the correctional facilities further exacerbates the difficulties involved in accessing and regulating them. For example, few knew the River Correctional Center was being used to hold immigrants until news organizations reported that asylum seekers had staged a hunger strike at the facility in an effort to gain access to bail bonds. The hunger strike spread to other correctional facilities used to detain immigrants, awakening the nation to the network of immigrant holding facilities in Louisiana.

While access to bail bonds has become limited nationwide, Louisiana is notorious for keeping immigrants under lock and key while they await their hearing. Our refusal to allow bail bonds has only worsened in recent years. Louisiana’s bail bond denial rate for asylum seekers was 41% in 2016, and it rose to 61% in 2018–9% higher than the national denial rate. Why would private correctional facilities release detainees when doing so is at their fiscal disadvantage?

The message is clear: Louisiana is where you’re sent when the government wants you to disappear. This objective is achieved by capitalizing on language barriers–we are denying credible fear applicants the chance to voice their concerns by blocking out credible translation and interpretation services.

Asylum seekers must be able to make their fears, and the events that caused them, known to officials both during and leading up to their credible fear interview. The credible fear interview gives non-citizens the opportunity to apply for asylum by demonstrating to the US Department of Homeland Security that they will be persecuted or tortured if they are returned to their country. Most interviewees lack documented proof of their claim, so the consistency and infallibility of their testimony is crucial for gaining approval. Language barriers often produce confusion, and alterations in an asylum seeker’s testimony at different phases of their screening process are used to discredit their application.

In order to remain consistent with Executive Order 13166, ICE’s language access policy says that they must provide translated materials, contract with interpreters, and utilize other language services to facilitate understanding for those with Limited English Proficiency. However, the recently added facilities’ remote locations make providing interpreters with the proper training and qualifications both expensive and challenging. Subsequently, tele-video conferencing is substituted for live interpretation services, and applicants’ cases are heard by Immigration Judges in other states through the impersonal process of video conferencing. Video services lead to inaccuracies and impose greater challenges on the interpretation process, since remote facilities often lack strong internet connections and quality audio systems.

While asylum seekers voices are muddled by video interpretation, they are silenced when required translations services are omitted altogether. This occurs with too great a frequency. For example, take the case of a businessman from El Salvador named Oscar featured in a recent Truthout article. Oscar, who fled his country after being kidnapped and lit on fire for being unable to pay extortion fees to gang members, sought safety in the United States. Instead of finding protection, Oscar was placed in Louisiana’s River Correctional Center. He has been forced to rely on the efforts of volunteers to interpret his experience in El Salvador, to gain legal advice, and to acquire medical assistance.

”The recently added facilities’ remote locations make providing interpreters with the proper training and qualifications both expensive and challenging.”

While volunteers’ interpretation efforts are well meaning, they are insufficient and can lead to discrepancies in the asylum seekers’ testimony that will ultimately prevent them from gaining protection. Interpreting is a profession that requires significant training and experience, and a well-meaning volunteer may not utilize the stringent protocols and best practices required of court interpreters. ICE’s own Language Access Plan states, “An individual who is proficient in a language may, for example, be able to greet an LEP individual in his or her language, but not conduct agency business in that language.”

Additionally, volunteers may lack an in-depth knowledge of either the medical or legal terminology necessary to accurately articulate the asylum seekers’ needs or the information being relayed to them. A certified interpreter assigned to the case would contribute expertise in these fields. ICE’s Language Access Plan requires ICE offices to request interpreters’ certification, assessments, qualifications, experience, and training before utilizing their services.

The March mumps outbreak at the Pine Prairie Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in Louisiana is yet another example of immigrants being kept in poor conditions and denied access to the necessary services to successfully execute their hearings. According to Article IX of ICE’s Detention and Removal Operations Field Policy Manual, regular Jail Inspection Reports should be conducted to make sure facilities are providing access to legal counsel and a legal library. However, the lawyers of 17 detained immigrants, claimed that their clients were blocked from legal counsel during the mumps outbreak and were prevented from accessing the library which provides translated documents integral to their detention proceedings.

While the outbreak certainly needed to be contained, affected applicants’ hearings should have been pushed back due to the outbreak to maintain their trials’ integrity. Sadly, immigration court proceedings continued normally during the mumps outbreak. As a privately-owned facility, it was at Pine Prairie Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center’s discretion to set quarantine protocols. Their choice to move forward with legal proceedings illustrates the prevalence of unethical practices in private prison facilities.

The quarantine feels like another excuse to silence immigrants. While the lack of legal counsel in the case of the mumps outbreak is unacceptable, legal counsel without proper translation and interpretation services is never fully effective. Additionally, we’ll never know how many affected by the mumps outbreak suffered extra indignities because they were unable to communicate their health needs. The frequency of such health crises go unreported in our state, since Louisiana has no local oversight of our detention centers. As is too often the case, the discussion of using language barriers as a means of discrimination and silencing was never a part of the mumps outbreak’s narrative.

There seems to be a belief that the provision of Spanish language interpretation accommodates the needs of all asylum seekers and detainees. However, applicants come from a wide range of Central American countries, and each contains a plethora of language groups. In Guatemala alone, there are over twenty indigenous languages spoken. You read that correctly–languages, not dialects. Honduras boasts eight distinct languages. Mexico, which is associated with the Spanish language in the American psyche, currently utilizes over 200 indigenous languages.

Finding an interpreter for languages of limited dispersion is challenging and when no interpreter is available between English and the scarce language, relay interpretation is sometimes used. Relay interpretation is much like the game of telephone. The target language speaker would have their speech translated to Spanish by an interpreter who speaks their language and Spanish and then into English by a Spanish/English interpreter.

While the relay interpretation process is time-consuming, it is necessary for the source language speaker to be able to make their case known and acquire medical assistance for preexisting conditions. Since our state often fails to provide Spanish interpreters, it is highly unlikely that an applicant from an area of limited language diffusion will gain access to appropriately qualified linguists in a Louisiana detention center.

When seeking asylum, an applicant’s key to freedom from persecution lies in their ability to articulate their suffering. They arrive with a story, but often lack the means of communicating it. It is up to us to be a voice for the voiceless. We must not allow the persecuted and the downtrodden to be locked away for profit.

We must not sacrifice humanity for cost efficiency. If we detain people without providing them with a voice to communicate their concerns, lock them in prisons, and deny them basic human dignity, then Louisiana’s River Correctional Center, Jackson Parish Correctional Center, and Richwood Correctional Center will stand alongside such ghastly compatriots as the Japanese Internment Camps and the Trail of Tears in the annals of American history.

Andrew Dafoe, TraduccioNOLA

Andrew Dafoe is the Founder and CEO of TraduccioNOLA, which provides interpretation and translation services in Louisiana and the Gulf South.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens Founder Karen Gadbois.