RELEASE: Language Access Has Life-or-Death Consequences for Migrants

Washington, D.C. — Following the deaths in U.S. Border Patrol custody of two children whose families spoke indigenous languages, it is clear that the agency needs to be more proactive in providing interpretation and translation services, as well as prompt medical services. A new Center for American Progress report offers recommendations that would ensure that the Border Patrol can better serve those with no or low English or Spanish proficiency.

Federal law makes language access to programs a core civil rights requirement. But while U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) current language access plan commits the agency to provide meaningful access to its programs and services, the Border Patrol’s efforts are limited in scope and fail to meet the agency’s legal obligations or the challenges the agency faces today. This raises acute safety concerns for migrants in Border Patrol custody, especially families and children with serious health needs.

Until recently, the Border Patrol’s standard procedure was to assess detainees only for clear medical emergencies, rather than performing proactive medical screenings, and to rely on migrants to advocate for themselves—despite significant language barriers. CBP can no longer afford to look the other way, especially since the proportion of migrants who speak indigenous languages has risen in recent years.

CAP makes the following recommendations to ensure that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and CBP satisfy their legal obligations to provide all individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) meaningful language support when accessing services and programs:

  • Proactive assessments of migrants’ language needs upon their arrival in Border Patrol custody, by officers who are well-trained to identify indigenous language access hurdles
  • Proactive medical assessments upon migrants’ arrival in Border Patrol custody, rather than depending on migrants’ ability to identify or communicate their own medical needs
  • Development of a dedicated indigenous-languages interpretation facility
  • Training to ensure that officers and agents only use Spanish with migrants whose Spanish-language skills are determined to be sufficient enough to effectively engage
  • Greater use of video and in-person interpretation

In addition:

  • The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division should ensure that DHS is meeting its language access needs.
  • DHS’ Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties should have a larger role in determining needed resources in activities by the front-line agencies—the CBP Office of Field Operations, the Border Patrol, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“The deaths of two children in Border Patrol custody in December—the first such deaths in more than a decade—are tragedies that could have been avoided and that must not be repeated,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president for Immigration Policy at CAP and co-author of the report. “Although much more is needed to ensure that all migrants in CBP custody receive necessary medical care, providing proactive medical and language assessments by properly trained individuals will go a long way in preventing more children from dying due to inadequate care.”

“DHS and its constituent parts can and must do more to both protect vulnerable migrants and fulfill their legal obligations,” said Scott Shuchart, senior fellow at CAP and co-author of the report. “This would take the form of proactive assessments by the Border Patrol for all those arriving at the border to best assess their language access and medical needs, in conjunction with more training, oversight, and resources to implement DHS’ language access policies.”

Click here to read “Language Access Has Life-or-Death Consequences for Migrants” by Tom Jawetz and Scott Shuchart.

For more information or to speak to an expert, please contact please contact Rafael Medina at  or 202.748.5313.