Many Mayans Among Detained Immigrants

A federal judge today will rule if state authorities have jurisdiction over the immigrants detained in New Bedford and transfered out of state. A group of attorneys have sewed immigration authorities to return immigrants to Massachusetts, where advocates say they'll get better representation and support.

As WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness reports many of the immigrants in out-of-state detention centers are members of an indigenous group called Maya Ki'Che'.


BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: When immigration authorities raided the Michael Bianco factory in New Bedford, Candelaria De Leon was sitting at her sewing machine.

CANDELERIA DE LEON: (In Spanish: a me pregunta...cuantos ninos tienes.......
(Voiceover in English:) They asked, "How many kids do you have?" I said, a 14-year-old, an 11-year-old and a 4-year-old, and they asked what school they go to.

TONESS: When she didn't know the name of her children's school, De Leon says the authorities made fun of her and she couldn't understand what they said next.

DE LEON: (In Spanish) Solo me quede escuchando....
(Voiceover in English) i just sat there listening and they grabbed me and tied me up ...and I asked god to let me go.

TONESS: Immigration authorities released De leon the same day because of her small children. They made her
sign documents that she says she couldn't understand.

But she was lucky. Even though she couldn't understand everything, she spoke enough Spanish to get herself home. You see, Spanish is her second language which she learned when she moved to the states 10 years ago. She grew up speaking Maya Ki-che', an indigenuos dialect dating back to a time before the Spanish conquered the New World.

De Leon hasn't learned English, and can't read or write in any language. She can't recognize numbers well, which is a problem now. She faces deportation and has to call immigration officials every month to prove she's still in town. A friend had to set up a special calendar for her and taught her to dial the number.

(Sound of man speaking Maya Ki'che')

TONESS: A man with a long gray pony-tail is on his knees speaking in Maya Ki'che' at a gathering of those affected by the raid. He's calling to the north, east, south and west. He is asking for help from his ancestors and the ancestors of the people from New Bedford facing deportation.

The spiritual leader came from Guatemala at the request of Anibal Lucas. Lucas organizes the thousands of Maya Ki'che' in New Bedford, and has stepped up to help those who were detained in the factory raid, almost half of whom were Maya Ki'che'.

ANIBAL LUCAS: (In Spanish) Todas las familias que usted ve aqui es un producto de la guerra...
(Voiceover in English) All of the families you see here are a product of the war. Because the war leaves hunger, poverty, people without education, it leaves pysychological trauma. It's difficult to cure these kinds of wounds.

TONESS: Guatemala's Civil War, which lasted more than three decades, hit the Maya Ki'che' particularly hard in the 1980s. The military destroyed hundreds of Mayan villages and massacred thousands of unarmed indigenous people.

Anibal Lucas worries that many of the Maya Ki'che' in custody don't speak Spanish well, and don't entirely understand what's happening in the immigration proceedings.

Immigration authorities say there were no language problems during the raid or detention. They say they never had to use Maya Ki'che' translators, but will if it's necessary in the future.

But language may not be the only barrier. John Willshire- Carrera is one of the attorneys fighting to bring the detainees who were taken out of state back to Massachusetts.

He says many of the Maya Ki'che' may have a good case for asylum. But their fear and distrust of the system may prevent them from telling their stories.

JOHN WILLSHIRE-CARRERA: I think when you have a community like this in the United states that come with all this experience and on top of that they come with a distrust of dealing even with the Latino community... so, I think it's even harder for them to deal with the English-speaking communities because to them it's almost like a double layer of problems.

TONESS: Willshire-Carrera says it will take time and patience for attorneys to win the trust of the Maya Ki'che' detainees. And he says attorneys on the border - where many of these detainees wait in huge detention centers -already face an overwhelming caseload.

FOR WBUR I'm Bianca Vazquez Toness

This program aired on March 21, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.


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