Going All in to Help Asylum Seekers at the U.S.-Mexico Border

As someone who has served on the ground at detention centers near the border and remotely from my home, I’m here to tell you that there’s an urgent humanitarian need for the skill sets of ATA members.

For trained translators and interpreters, there’s a special role to play at the U.S.-Mexico border, whether on the ground or remotely. The backlog of cases, recent implementation of Migrant Protection Protocols1 (MPP, more aptly known as the “Remain in Mexico Policy”), and now with COVID-19, your time and energy are greatly needed.

I’ve served on the ground at detention centers near the border and remotely from my home in rural Illinois, lending my time as a translator, interpreter, and in other legal assistant capacities for asylum seekers at our border. Based on these experiences, I’m here to tell you that there’s an urgent humanitarian need for the skill sets of ATA members.

Though we constantly hear about asylum seekers from Central America, asylum seekers arrive from over 218 countries.2 For this reason, don’t assume that Spanish is the only language needed. Arabic, French, Portuguese, and many indigenous languages of Central America are also in great demand. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 21% of asylum seekers in 2017 were from China, constituting the largest group3, followed by the three countries making up the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Due to MPP, thousands of asylum seekers are living in tent cities on the Mexican side of our border. In Matamoros alone, there are at least 3,000 people in camps waiting months for their turn to appear in court. During this period, they need access to legal and health services, which often means they also need translation and interpreting services. Dozens of agencies with committed volunteers are doing their best to fill the gaps. Likewise, thousands of asylum seekers linger in detention centers on the U.S. side, oftentimes detained with their children. While hundreds of volunteer lawyers, social workers, and psychologists work to provide pro bono services to these detainees, most of them require an interpreter for interviews and a translator for documentation.

What about Title VI? Or the Right to an Attorney?

Many of us have been trained to recite Title VI as a backing for language access advocacy. This section of the Civil Rights Act4 has been invoked to guarantee translation and interpreting services to any individual requiring them, if that service is funded by the federal government. As U.S. citizens, we also know that anyone accused of committing a crime has the right to an attorney if they cannot afford one. Neither of these rights applies to asylum seekers in detention centers on U.S. soil. They sit caught between a catch-22 of civil and criminal court. Their only hope is the pro bono hours given by dedicated professionals, including translators and interpreters.

I Would Like to Help, but I Don’t Think I’m Qualified…

These were my exact sentiments only a few years ago. I’ve been teaching Spanish language, culture, and literature for the past 20 years at a small liberal arts college in Illinois. I was hired to teach specialized courses in Peninsular literature and culture, as well as introductory language classes. I had studied abroad in Spain as an undergraduate and gone back several times to live for extended periods. After receiving a PhD in literature, my focus on working toward tenure and raising a family required all my attention. However, I had occasionally dabbled in translation and interpreting. Both my own inclination toward this field and external pressure to teach career-ready skills led me to slowly place more emphasis on translation and interpreting. Eventually, I earned my certification as a medical interpreter in 2016.

Even with this experience, I still felt unprepared to do asylum work. So, when the humanitarian crisis at our border and talk of building a border wall began to be featured in daily media reports, I didn’t immediately take action other than to express armchair outrage and repost articles on social media. Part of me excused my inaction with the logic that I wasn’t a specialist in Latin America and had extremely limited exposure to Central American Spanish. Second, I felt more comfortable in the medical realm than the legal. I was afraid I would be tongue-tied for all the legal terminology I would need. Finally, I was woefully ignorant about the asylum process, and most of immigration law for that matter. Therefore, I rationalized that I really had no place getting involved.

This thinking continued until I did a little more reading and assigned some provocative texts to my students, like Francisco Cantú’s reflections5 on working as a U.S. Border Patrol officer, or PBS’s Farmingville6, which provides an insightful look at the effects of immigration in small-town America. However, it wasn’t until after reading Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions that I knew there was no turning back. Luiselli provides readers with a precious window into the lives of unaccompanied children who arrive in our immigration courts through her work as an interpreter. Luiselli discusses how the interview process (“40 questions”), designed for adults, plays out for children. Question 7 is particularly hard (“Did anything bad happen to you on your way to the U.S.?”). As Luiselli readies herself for the answer, she reflects, “…all I want to do is cover my face and my ears and disappear. But I know better, or try to. I remind myself to swallow the rage, grief, and shame; remind myself to just sit still and listen closely… [for] a particular detail that can end up being key to his or her defense against deportation.”7

As a bilingual U.S. citizen and experienced translator and interpreter, I began to realize I had a highly valuable skill set that could have a huge direct impact on hundreds of lives. Moreover, I began to see donating my time and skills as a moral imperative. As it turns out, the shortfalls I saw in my experience, while not insignificant, were not as large as they loomed in my mind. I already had the most important skills to be successful and would quickly learn everything else of importance.

So, what’s required to work in this area? In the following I outline some of the most important skills for interpreters and translators in this field. For those still uncertain if this work is for you, it’s surprising how many skills you already use that overlap into this area.

Interpreters with Empathy

For interpreters, the most important skill to bring to the table is listening with empathy. In many cases, the interpreter is literally the first person to hear a refugee’s story and the first to voice this story to someone in a position to help. This is a both tremendous responsibility and an honor. In the words of my colleague Cindy Lepeley, who volunteered for the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Proyecto Dilley pro bono project in Texas, working with women and children detainees: “This is sacred work.”

If you can perform consecutive interpreting for an extended period and have the emotional fortitude to deal with traumatic stories, then you’re ready and qualified to dive in. Many medical interpreters deal with traumatic situations in their work, so they already have the necessary experience and tools to handle intense experiences. When I say “emotional fortitude,” I don’t mean the ability to interpret like a robot without feeling. Hard as you may try, you’ll shed tears in this work, and some stories will haunt you.

There are excellent resources available on vicarious trauma for interpreters8, and I cannot recommend them highly enough as a prerequisite to this work. Some tricks I use are deep breathing for its calming effect or pressing my pen hard into the paper when I’m taking notes. The latter allows me to release tension into the pen and paper and away from my lungs, throat, and chest. When possible, I try to go outside and take a walk right after interpreting traumatic material. Knowing my emotional triggers also helps. In my case, they happen to be when men break down and sob or when the client expresses profuse appreciation for my help. Each person will need to find the techniques that work best. Some techniques work better in person, others work better remotely. For example, pausing to collect your thoughts is visually evident when interpreting in person, but over the phone without video, those on the other end will begin to wonder if the connection has been lost. In these situations, I find that gently clearing my throat works better.

There are many opportunities to serve as a pro bono interpreter, near or far, with or without video, through your cell phone, or on Whatsapp, a cross-platform messaging and voiceover online service. Every organization has a method to connect with an interpreter. Generally speaking, Zoom-like software won’t be used since your client won’t have access to more than a detention center phone line or a simple Wi-Fi connection. Especially now, during the adaptations required for COVID-19, most interpreting is done remotely. Typically, the organization will have a prearranged time and date for a three-way call that will allow you, other professionals, and the asylum seeker to have a discussion. These calls can last from one to three hours.

What about the Legal Aspect?

As I mentioned previously, I was cautious about giving my time to this cause because I had a limited legal vocabulary. Yet, to my surprise, there was no need for an extensive legal vocabulary for this type of interpreting. To be clear, I’m not referring to court interpreting or even official asylum officer interviews, but rather all of the groundwork that happens before and after official court appearances.

For example, lawyers, psychologists, social workers, and legal advocates need to speak to their clients several times before and after the Credible Fear Interview.9 This interview constitutes the most important moment in the asylum process. The asylum seeker will be interviewed by an asylum officer to find out whether they qualify for asylum by demonstrating that they need asylum to escape persecution or torture in their home country. Passing this interview is the first step toward gaining freedom from detention. Still, unbelievably, an asylum seeker may pass the Credible Fear Interview but not be allowed out of detention. In these cases, if the asylum seeker is lucky enough to have legal assistance, the attorney will try to get bond or humanitarian release for their client. In these cases, an interpreter will be called in to facilitate communication before the bond hearing.

During the interview process, certain words and phrases will come up repeatedly, such as persecution, targeted, court date, appeal, asylum, bond, police report, sponsor, flight risk, and detention. However, the majority of your time interpreting will be spent listening carefully to the microdetails of life events, clarifying the approximate time and the order in which things happened, as well as the responses and consequences of each event. The required vocabulary is much more somber: rape, assault, beatings, torture, threats, extorsion, gangs, and kidnapping. Skilled interviewers ask about the first, worst, and last thing that happened before an individual decided to flee their country. Difficult, probing questions are required to develop a legal strategy for filing for asylum. For example, when interviewing someone who was raped, the questioning will probably go something like this: “After the rape, did you go to the police or the doctor?” “Was there bruising, bleeding, or discharge in your pelvic area?” “What did the men say while they were raping you?”

While I would hate to discount the difficulty and sensitivity of these conversations, I would be remiss not to emphasize how wonderfully fulfilling the process can be. I’ve never felt so appreciated and respected as I have at the end of one of these sessions. Invariably, when it’s time to say goodbye, the asylum seeker expresses deep gratitude, not only for the legal services, but more importantly for the chance to tell their story to an empathetic listener. Whether or not the desired legal results are achieved, the human and humane interaction serves a therapeutic role. I don’t say this to express a personal opinion, but rather as a transmission of what asylum seekers have told me time and time again.

Translators Also Wanted

It’s not just interpreting skills that are needed at the border. Volunteer translators are also in high demand. Each client is often armed with a stack of documentation for their case, all of which needs to be translated and certified. These documents range from national identification cards, birth certificates, school records, political party membership letters, death certificates, sworn statements, police reports, and even Facebook messages. For translators with limited experience with legal documents like birth certificates, rest assured that many of the advocate groups have a stockpile of rubrics and templates to help you through the process.

Some of this content will not take an emotional toll. Birth certificates, school reports, identification cards, and documents like these will only cause the kind of stress that comes from the irritations of formatting columns and rows. However, documents like police reports, newspaper articles, sworn statements, and doctors’ reports documenting the physical evidence of abuse, torture, and the like, sometimes paired with photographic evidence, will require steady nerves. (One of most horrific documents I translated consisted of several testimonial accounts of human rights abuses of Nicaraguan political prisoners.) Here, those with specialties in various medical fields will be of greater value than those with legal experience.

Translators have the privilege of taking breaks as often as needed. Take them. Moreover, volunteer organizations are sensitive to the secondary impacts of this kind of work and offer office hours for debriefing, webinars on secondary trauma, or label their translation requests with trigger warnings.

Some of the unique challenges have been translating handwritten documents, especially those with spelling errors and/or a lack of punctuation. Translators need to preserve some degree of the sense and feel of the original while making the text comprehensible to an asylum officer. Another challenge may come with the quality of the copy. For instance, sometimes the only way to receive a document is via a cell phone photo uploaded to WhatsApp. This is becoming increasingly common now due to the border closure and restrictions with COVID-19.

The workflow for translators is quite manageable. Typically, organizations send out translation requests once a week with a short description of the document, length, and turnaround time. The cohort of volunteers then reply back with what they would be willing to take on. Other groups may use a spreadsheet system in which you sign up to take on a document or set of documents. This allows volunteers to maintain total control of the quantity of work they handle in any given week. I’ve been proud to work for the following groups and applaud them for their professionalism: Respond: Crisis Translators Network; Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services; Al Otro Lado; the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project; and the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

Opportunities for Direct Client Services

Direct services mean working with a client directly, one-on-one, without the presence of a lawyer, social worker, or psychologist. Taking on the role of direct service provider will require some adjustment, especially for those who are trained to be unobtrusive and impartial. However, if you have the language skills to do interpreting, you also have the level of language skills needed to provide direct services. If this appeals to you, then step entirely out of your interpreter role and act as an administrative legal assistant and advocate.

This type of service might consist of tasks like interviewing a client about their past persecution and filling out a summary for a lawyer to read, often referred to as doing “intakes.” In a sense, this is an exercise in both interpreting and translating simultaneously to yourself! For example, I ask, listen, and respond in Spanish, but I summarize and type in English. (As far as I know, our profession has not created a term for this yet.) The team of lawyers will then follow up through a phone call with an interpreter on specific aspects of the client’s history. This saves time and builds capacity for legal services.

One portion of the I-58910, the application for asylum, asks for the names and locations of each family member. Imagine the nightmare of interpreting the names of 10 siblings while trying to ensure that the spelling is correct. This task would be better performed as part of a direct service. Another task might involve agreeing to take a shift on a helpline. When you answer calls on a helpline, you enter the required information into a database, which is then shared with the administrative team in charge of finding legal representation. Many groups around the U.S. also have court observer programs, Greyhound bus station arrival programs, and visitation or letter writing programs to help ease the emotional toll on asylum seekers facing lengthy detention. My hat goes off to those volunteers who also commit to sponsoring an asylum seeker in their homes post-release.

A Sense of Duty

When I take time to search, I learn more about the ways Americans are working for positive outcomes for asylum seekers. This knowledge helps keep me optimistic and balanced after the barrage of depressing news that fills my screen each day with respect to the legal and physical barriers being enacted against asylum seekers. For me, donating my time and expertise to collaborate with various groups in this important work is my own form of personal resistance. It also keeps me “in-the-know” in a way I can’t be through the television screen. This precious knowledge enriches my sense of duty as a U.S. citizen, not to mention enhances my teaching. In this way, I fully acknowledge I’m receiving immense personal benefits. I encourage my colleagues to consider going all in!

  1. To find out how Migrant Protection Protocols affect asylum seekers, please visit https://bit.ly/remain-in-Mexico-policy.
  2. Galvan, Astrid. “By the Numbers: Migration to the U.S.-Mexico Border,” Associated Press (July 25, 2019), https://bit.ly/Galvan-migration.
  3. Blizzard, Brittany, and Jeanne Batalova. “Refugees and Asylees in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute (June 13, 2019), https://bit.ly/MPI-asylees.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://bit.ly/HHS-limited-English-proficiency.
  5. Cantú, Francisco. The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Penguin Random House, 2019), https://bit.ly/Cantú-border.
  6. Point of View (PBS, June 22, 2004), https://bit.ly/Farmingville.
  7. Luiselli, Valeria. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Coffee House Press, 2017), 28, https://bit.ly/Luiselli-forty-questions.
  8. Bancroft, Marjory. “Breaking Silence: What Interpreters Need to Know about Victim Services Interpreting,” The ATA Chronicle (November/December 2016), 16, https://bit.ly/Bancroft-victim-services.
  9. Credible Fear Interview FAQ (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), https://bit.ly/credible-fear.
  10. I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), www.uscis.gov/i-589.
Where to Volunteer

Contact the following organizations to find out about possible volunteer opportunities. Help make a difference!

The Advocates for Human Rights

Al Otro Lado

Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition

Freedom for Immigrants

Immigrant Justice Campaign

Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project

Project Lifeline

Proyecto Dilley

Respond: Crisis Translators Network

Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services

Robin Ragan is a professor of Spanish at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She has a PhD in Hispanic literature from the University of Illinois-Urbana. She teaches all levels of Spanish, including translation and interpreting. Over the past year and a half, she has taken three groups of students to the U.S.-Mexico border to serve as volunteer interpreters for asylum seekers held in U.S. detention centers. She received her certification for medical interpreting in 2016. Contact: rragan@knox.edu.

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