The Silently Powerful Reach Out to the Linguistically Handicapped

By David North on February 26, 2016

It was one of those strange situations that pop up so every often in the immigration world, a powerful, but routinely silent, part of the law enforcement establishment reaching out to a linguistically handicapped minority just outside the Hispanic community.

One of the elements I have in mind is the prison-for-hire business that has grown so strong in recent years. Strong, but silent. One rarely hears about their activities and yet these corporations manage, for a price, most of the detention facilities run by the Department of Homeland Security.

The largest of these is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), an organization that seems to prefer its initials to its whole name; it has some 70 facilities housing about 70,000 inmates all over the United States. It calls itself the fifth-largest corrections system in the United States, after the Federal Bureau of Prisons and three state systems (presumably those of California, New York, and Texas).

One of its 70 facilities is the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas; this place, in the middle of nowhere, houses some of the illegal aliens from Central America that have drawn so much attention lately. I will return to it in a minute.

The other element I have in mind consists of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America, many of whom speak neither Spanish nor English. Early on in the immigration business I started to hear about the terrible condition of migrant labor crews drawn from these populations that were working in California agriculture. They were treated badly by both their ultimate employers in agribusiness and by their trilingual crew leaders, who spoke English, Spanish, and the indigenous language. The workers could not seek help from Anglos or Hispanics. Theirs was the silence of the powerless.

All of this was in the back of my head as I decided to find out about the current situation at the Dilley facility, which has been the target of immigration lawyers seeking to free illegal alien families from Central America on the grounds that the detention facilities are not appropriate for families.

The CCA manager simply hung up on me when I asked about how many inmates were in the facility at the moment. I had a much better conversation with the editors of two South Texas weekly papers relatively near the facility, but learned little. One of them told me that she had seen no advertisements in her own paper that indicated that construction work was contemplated. I asked if she had noticed any hiring there lately and she said she had not, but knew that some local people worked at Dilley, a place that has a payroll of hundreds.

"I rarely drive by the facility," she said, "and if you do, it is well off the road, and you cannot see anything unless you have either binoculars or a helicopter." We agreed that neither of us had the resources to support the latter.

I then checked out the jobs-available part of the CCA website for Dilley and found that the firm was indeed seeking to fill three jobs (out of a total of hundreds of positions there). Two of the jobs were for transportation specialists, which turned out to be for drivers.

The title of the third job brought me up short. It was for a "Translation Specialist K'iche".

I suspected that K'iche was an indigenous language, and though I had not heard of it before, I was right. I learned that is the main Mayan language in Guatemala. A translation specialist in the CCA lexicon is a translator who is supposed to do some social work. Unlike some other positions that were easier to fill, this job had been open for three weeks on February 24.

So, a substantial portion of the detainees at Dilley must speak neither Spanish nor English, and there is a need for a K'iche translator.

This said two things to me: First, there must be a sizable number of non-Spanish speaking, non-English speaking aliens in this population generally. This has strong implications about their ability to cope and support themselves in this country, and suggests that serving them will be more intricate and more expensive than serving a monolingual Spanish population. I had not realized that this sub-population was part of this surge.

If you live in a predominantly Spanish-speaking country, and cannot speak the language, it must mean you have not had much education. That's not a good sign for the individuals, or for the society hosting them — ours in this case.

The second thing the job notice said to me was that strong, silent CCA management had noticed the problem, and was seeking to reach out to this linguistically handicapped community. It is not often that one gets to write something complimentary about the prison/industrial complex.