Ariel Koren &Fernanda de Oliveira Silva
The injustices hurled at migrants in America have been widely documented in recent years, but little notice has been given to the language-based violence that underpins the immigration system. Thousands of asylum seekers have no access to a qualified interpreter or translator, while the U.S. government only accepts English asylum materials and can reject asylum claims for a single misspelled word. To help end such nightmares, Respond Crisis Translation has mobilized more than 2,500 language activists who provide trauma-informed interpretation and translation services for migrants, refugees, and anyone experiencing language barriers. A global community of translators—many of whom are asylum seekers as well as deportees rebuilding their lives in their home countries—provides intervention in more than 100 languages, often in contexts where language access is a matter of life and death. Along with translating migrant detention policies into Mam, K’iche’, Popti’, and Haitian Creole, for example, Respond is partnering with 100 organizations to facilitate communication, safety, and success for their clients who may have unique linguistic needs. In the process, the collective creates jobs for high-demand translators in communities that lack economic opportunities. To catalyze change on a system-wide scale, Respond has also launched a grassroots policy effort that uses legal and political advocacy tools to help our society normalize language access and foster language democracy.
Throughout U.S. history, language has been used as a tool to justify systemic abuse of linguistically diverse communities. Respond Crisis Translation is a collective of 2,500+ translators and interpreters mobilizing around the clock to provide trauma-informed support to anyone experiencing a crisis, emergency, or situation where language is a barrier to access. We work across disparate contexts, from asylum and decarceration activists to schools, clinics, job coaching, domestic violence, and LGBTQ+ centers. Additionally, the Respond Language Democracy Project is a grassroots policy effort seeking reparations for those who have experienced systemic language rights abuses.
Working as interpreters for people experiencing crisis has meant seeing time and time again that access to a qualified, trauma-informed interpreter can be the difference between life and death. To quote our partners, Aida Farahani and Julia Alvarez of the RAICES Family Detention team: “For-profit prison contractors use contracted interpreters, and the government does not inform families of their right to a non-adversarial interpreter. An entire asylum case can be prejudiced if an interpreter is not trauma-informed. Respond’s trauma-informed attention, grounded in contextual understanding, is an antidote to perpetual language-based violence.”
Our biggest challenge is the systemic underfunding (and non-funding) of language access, even in advocacy spaces. The government’s failure to address the translation deficit at the border is leaving thousands of asylum seekers languishing for months or years in dangerous situations. We have seen a threefold increase in incoming emergency casework since the political and climate-related crises in Afghanistan and Haiti. International donor communities have sent millions of dollars to legal aid for Haitian and Afghan refugees, but there is almost no funding for interpreting to make this legal aid possible. We must fight for dignified wage opportunities for translators and build talent-to-career pipelines so that talented multilingual people can actually afford to pursue this lifesaving line of work.
There are too many to list them all! We are honored to work closely with the inspiring teams at fellow Innovation Prize awardees ImmSchools and ASAP. Álvaro González at Florence Project for Refugee and Immigrant Rights has played an invaluable role in our ability to grow into the vast collective we are today. Additional partners and collaborators who have played essential roles in our growth have been Leticia Morales (Texas Nicaraguan Community), Monica Whatley (Southern Poverty Law Center), Guerline Jozef (Haitian Bridge Alliance), and Nicole Ramos and Maddie Harrison (Al Otro Lado). Finally, Elizabeth is a genius budding Spanish-Kaqchikel interpreter who is fundamental in giving life to Respond. She is a language activist, survivor of ICE detention, and deportation survivor. Elizabeth was one of our first-ever clients. Now, she has become a leader on our team, in her community, and an activist with the incredible grassroots collective Vida Digna.
Recently our client Carlos bravely shared his story with a national audience. While detained by ICE, he was not provided language access to understand any of what was happening around him. He begged for an interpreter ten times, only to be ignored by officers and left nearly to die of COVID-19. With the support of Respond interpreter Samara Zuza, Carlos advocated for himself, ultimately recovering from COVID and winning his freedom.
North Carolina (Operating nationwide)
Every Campus A Refuge leverages the sizable resources of colleges and universities to provide a stronger, more dignified landing for refugees.
New York (Operating globally)
Wikitongues safeguards threatened heritage languages by giving people resources to document, teach, and promote culture-sustaining mother tongues.
District of Columbia (Operating nationwide)
Cambium Carbon upcycles fallen urban trees, growing green jobs while building equitable cities and mitigating climate change at scale.
HEARD’s trauma-informed reentry program provides healing, empathy, and justice for deaf/disabled people who have been harmed by the carceral system.
Homeownership and construction skills-building come together as a platform that centers Black women, reclaims historic homes, and sparks neighborhood-scale change.
Co-op Dayton builds community- and worker-owned cooperatives that center Black workers, expand democratic participation, and renew long-neglected neighborhoods.
Wisconsin (Operating nationwide)
Driven by a reparations ethic, Nuns & Nones collaborates with Catholic sisters to invest their land and assets in regenerative land stewardship.
The Black-led Freedom Community Center holistically integrates restorative justice with personal healing and broad-based advocacy to transform communities.