Language barriers make asylum a difficult dream for African migrants in Bakersfield

Aug. 29—It did not start with a revolt. It wasn't a natural disaster or the 6 p.m. curfew. For Oumar Ba, his decision to leave came with the death of a friend.

Sitting in a one-story rental east of Oak Street, Ba — who can put together fragments of English — speaks for the group of 10 crowded around him on the couch.

"It is a country that has no respect for us," Ba said through an interpreter on the phone. "We don't feel safe in this country ... that is why we left."

They come from Mauritania, a bone-dry nation located in the Sahara's western corridor. Following the Feb. 9 death of Souvi Cheine, a pro-Black Mauritanian rights activist, Ba and the others took part in protests that gripped the country.

"(Cheine's) claim was that we are tired of this brutality, and to give Black Mauritanians a fair chance," said Zeinabou Sall, director of Immigration and Social Services for the Mauritanian Network for Human Rights in the United States.

According to a news release by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, an autopsy found that the cause of death was a neck fracture and strangulation. Cheine's family alleged that he was tortured.

"And the police tried to offer his family money," Ba said.

Months later, with tensions already taut, Oumar Diop was killed by police on May 29. Three days of protests ensued, halted by a military crackdown that sent hundreds to prison and thousands to the hospital, according to The Associated Press.

Cheine was described by his followers as "the voice of the people," and a friend to many, including Ba and the others.

Ba said it was especially bad after the government instituted a 6 p.m. curfew, bludgeoning those who broke it and reportedly sending others to Senegal without allowing reentry.

"No matter what, you did not go out (during curfew)," Ba said.

Amid the confusion, Ba and the others left, with money loaned by friends and family. After flights through Turkey, Colombia and El Salvador, they wound up in Managua, Nicaragua.

"That was hell," Ba said.

It is a smuggler's route, from Managua to Arizona, that involves ditching cars, trekking forests, thieving police and knee-deep rivers. But due to Nicaragua's cheap visas and slackened entry requirements, the route has been widely popularized by West Africans, especially in the past six months.

According to data compiled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 8,500 Mauritanians crossed the border from Mexico between March and June. Just over 1,000 made the same entrance in the four months prior.

The group, 10 of 25 released last week from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Desert View Annex facility in Adelanto after 56 days in detention, awaits its court date.

With the exception of some broken English and French, they cannot speak anything besides Pulaar Mauritanian — a Balect common only among their nation's poorer class. Because of long-standing racial persecution in Mauritania, most members of the group do not read or write in any other language and were prevented from attending schools where they could have learned Arabic — the nation's predominant language.

Due to a lack of schools, most of them also cannot read or write Pulaar.

This makes their case extremely difficult. Applicants seeking asylum are required to fill out an I-589, a 14-page form difficult even for native English speakers.

"I think the situation with Mauritanian asylum seekers reflects a lot of problems within the system inherently," said My Khanh Ngo, a staff attorney with the ACLU immigrants' rights project in San Francisco. "Because of their language barriers and because of the barriers behind why they fled their home country, (it) is exacerbating those problems."

While the ACLU recently translated the I-589 forms into Pulaar Mauritanian, they still need someone to read it for them.

"It will still be critical for them to get a legal orientation from an attorney and preferably work with one to fill out the form in English," Ngo wrote in an email.

"They expected them to fill out an I-589 application in English," Sall said. "You're not even giving these people a chance to explain or defend themselves. I speak Pulaar very well but I do not know how to write Pulaar. And if I try to read Pulaar, it will take me very long because I won't be able to read and understand all of the content."

Finding an interpreter has also been difficult. Sall has provided all necessary translation between the group and the Bakersfield nonprofit that cares for them. And while she does not charge for her service, Sall said attorneys are asking for $4,500 each to take their cases.

"How can they pay that?" Sall said.

While their circumstances merit asylum, Ngo said, it comes down to the fact that Ba and the others cannot, under the current asylum system, defend their case properly.

"If they come back without the form filled out in English, the judge will deem that application abandoned," Ngo said. "Which is clearly not the intent of the individual."

It's an issue of language, one that comes up at every step in the process, from the Arizona border, to their eventual day in court. In cases nationwide, Ngo said that a lack of interpretation has led to continuance ad nauseum and, in some cases, deportation.

"Especially if you speak a less common language where you're basically just in a bubble," Ngo said. "Because you can't communicate with anyone in the outside world."

And this situation is not isolated to this group in California, Ngo continued, saying she recently met an individual coerced to do his interview in French after the immigration court struggled to find an interpreter.

"Luckily, we were able to get that reopened once we raised all the language-related issues," Ngo said. "But it's a problem that I think not many people are realizing is happening."

In a July 19 letter, the ACLU asked for ICE and immigration courts to provide "competent interpreters for immigration hearings," saying that the rarity of their Balect makes it nearly impossible to find someone on their own.

"These deficiencies, which Black asylum seekers in the U.S. are too often forced to deal with, could impede the ability of these individuals to adequately prepare and present their asylum cases, leading to unnecessary and prolonged detention," the letter read.

ICE representatives did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

While his detention experience wasn't bad, Ba said there was no explanation as to what was requested of him. "They just give us the paperwork."

Crowded along the living room couch, an L-frame nearly large enough to fit the 10 of them, Ba and the others spoke briefly of their home.

Even after the abolishment of slavery in 1981 and its subsequent criminalization in 2007, Black Mauritanians existed on a continuum between slavery and quasi-freedom. Their darker skin meant exclusion from higher-paid jobs, lack of municipal representation and underfunded school systems.

"Some children have to walk about 6 miles to go to school," Sall said.

Few vocalized their grievances publicly, in fear of detainment or torture.

Seated around the phoned-in interpreter in Bakersfield, each looks down or folds into himself in reaction to questions about slavery and injustice. Some stare down at the carpet, watching the ants crawl along their toes.

"Regardless of your status or background, if you are Black in Mauritania, you can become a slave," Ba said. "Nothing is done, and the government is not helping."

Despite the country's history, Ba did not plan on leaving before his friend's death.

In this land of nomads, camels and empty, moonlike quarters, Ba — reared into a family of shepherds — was one of the few Black Mauritanians who was able to attend a university — one of the few in the group.

Ba would eventually leave the flock and move to the country's capital, Nouakchott, where he stayed with his uncle to go to the classes.

"I'm from a country where they don't care about human rights," Ba said.

For now, the group's fate is uncertain. All but two have their initial ICE date on Sept. 15. From there, they may have individual court dates. According to an April report by the Department of Justice, Mauritanians face a 52% acceptance rate for asylum. Only 27 Mauritanians were granted asylum in 2021.

Without money for a lawyer and no sponsor secured, they await their court dates with few options. In the interim, they live an idle life inside the bubble.

Some go on walks or watch TV Land, or sports. Many scratch the skin beneath their ankle monitors. A single bathroom, two rooms and three beds are shared among the four who stay at the place in Benton Park.

"I'm not even sure if they've even gone under the bed covers," said Jeannie Parent, a coordinator with KWESI, a Bakersfield advocacy group charged with the group's care.

Many in the group still lack clothes outside those pulled from donation boxes, and some still rely on the flip-flops provided in Adelanto. But mostly, they spend their days on their prepaid phones, talking to friends and family.

As just as Parent said she's dredging up her French, Ba is learning tidbits of English, beginning with words like "kitchenware," "toilet" and "spaghetti."

One of his first lessons was on Post-its, stuck to items throughout the house: door, window, home. Not able to read or write it, Parent shifted to greetings and body parts, in case they had pain.

The greetings and body parts, Parent said, went all right. The notes may take a little more time.