ICE uses Google Translate to communicate with asylum seekers
Google is no replacement for the humanity of learning a language
I drove to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Little Rock, Arkansas yesterday. The building is near the airport, and when I parked, I had to look at it for a long time because it appeared to be abandoned. But when I walked up, through a dirty door with dead cockroaches trapped inside the tape around old announcements, I saw a waiting room the size of a bathroom.
I entered and found myself surrounded by asylum seekers from Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. I greeted the couple I had been introduced to via email by members of Casa de Colores, an organization in El Paso, Texas, run by trans asylum seekers. The couple was seeking asylum, a trans woman and trans man, and they sat with their daughter, who was asleep. They had fled death threats in El Salvador. I wanted to be present to translate for them and to ensure that ICE officials didn’t discriminate against them.
You could see the ICE office beyond the waiting room and it was full of white men. When an ICE officer walked into the waiting room, he shouted into his phone in English, “Your next meeting is June 27th, and you need to install the tracking device on your phone.” He then lowered his phone in front of the face of the asylum seeker from Honduras, and a female Google Translate voice with an accent from Spain translated, more or less, his words into Spanish. I burst out laughing because it seemed ridiculous that ICE wouldn’t hire Spanish speakers or provide classes to employees rather than have them shout into Google Translate. The asylum seekers assured me that the use of Google Translate was standard in their experience.
The ICE official didn’t want me to translate - he preferred to use Google Translate. Because I was there, the couple did have me ask him some questions about their asylum process. When he responded, he didn’t look at them. He looked at his phone and spoke to Google Translate as if they weren’t present. While technology can be useful, and I get that ICE agents can’t speak every language - I do not understand why they wouldn’t be required to learn Spanish. It is their most common language of interaction, and to speak it is a basic form of respect that creates a humane interaction.
ICE should offer a range of language classes to all employees or require that they speak multiple languages.
Cheers to those of you who continue to learn languages and find joy in their humanity,
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I wrote for The New Yorker about “The Impersonal Intimacy of Mexico’s Commuter Buses”
Horrible, but not surprising. ICE is so completely disrespectful of the people they supposedly serve. It seems to be their way of intimidation.
I remember visiting a border patrol station in Nogales during a class about border issues during seminary. The entire time we were there, patrol agents referred to would be immigrants/refugees as "bodies". They never called them people. It was a clear demonstration of tactics meant to dehumanize anyone seeking to cross into the U.S.