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TIME: Can a Mother Lose Her Child Because She Doesn't Speak English?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Can the U.S. government take a woman's baby from her because she doesn't speak English? That's the latest question to arise in the hothouse debate over illegal immigration, as an undocumented woman from impoverished rural Mexico — who speaks only an obscure indigenous language — fights in a Mississippi court to regain custody of her infant daughter.

Cirila Baltazar Cruz comes from the mountainous southern state of Oaxaca, a region of Mexico that makes Appalachia look affluent. To escape the destitution in her village of 1,500 mostly Chatino Indians, Baltazar Cruz, 34, migrated earlier this decade to the U.S., hoping to send money back to two children she'd left in her mother's care. She found work at a Chinese restaurant on Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

But Baltazar Cruz speaks only Chatino, barely any Spanish and no English. Last November, she went to Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula, Miss., where she lives, to give birth to a baby girl, Rubí. According to documents obtained by the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, the hospital called the state Department of Human Services (DHS), which ruled that Baltazar Cruz was an unfit mother in part because her lack of English "placed her unborn child in danger and will place the baby in danger in the future." (Read "Should a Muslim Mother Be Caned for Drinking a Beer?")

Rubí was taken from Baltazar Cruz, who now faces deportation. In May, a Jackson County judge gave the infant to a couple (it is unclear if for foster care or adoptive purposes) who reportedly live in Ocean Springs. Baltazar Cruz is challenging the ruling in Jackson County Youth Court and hopes that if she is deported she can at least take Rubí back to Mexico with her. (She has not disclosed the father's identity.) (See the best and worst moms ever.)

Baltazar Cruz's case has been taken up by the Mississippi Immigrants' Rights Alliance (MIRA) and the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), whose lawyers say they can't comment on its specifics because of a judge's gag order. But Mary Bauer, the SPLC's legal director, says that on a general level, any notion that a mother can lose custody of a child because she doesn't speak a particular language "is a fundamentally outrageous violation of human rights." (Read "When Motherhood Gets You Jail Time.")

Before the gag order, advocates for Baltazar Cruz had charged that the problems sprang from faulty translation at Singing River. Baltazar Cruz arrived at the hospital after she flagged down a Pascagoula police officer on a city street. She was later joined there by a Chatino-speaking relative, according to MIRA, but the hospital declined his services and instead used a translator from state social services, an American of Puerto Rican descent who spoke no Chatino and whose Spanish was significantly different from that spoken in Mexico.

According to the Clarion-Ledger, the state report portrayed Baltazar Cruz as virtually a prostitute, claiming she was "exchanging living arrangements for sex" in Pascagoula and planned to put the child up for adoption. Through her advocates (before the gag order), Baltazar Cruz adamantly denied those claims. Since "she has failed to learn the English language," the newspaper quotes the documents as saying, she was "unable to call for assistance for transportation to the hospital" to give birth. The social-services translator also reported that Baltazar Cruz had put Rubí in danger because she "had not brought a cradle, clothes or baby formula." But indigenous Oaxacan mothers traditionally breast feed their babies for a year and rarely use bassinets, carrying their infants instead in a rebozo, a type of sling.

MIRA has accused Singing River and Mississippi DHS of essentially "stealing" Rubí. Citing the gag order, DHS will not comment on Baltazar Cruz's case, but before the order, an official insisted to the Clarion-Ledger that "the language a person speaks has nothing to do with the outcome of the investigation." Singing River spokesman Richard Lucas calls the MIRA charge "preposterous" and, while noting that the nonprofit hospital delivered Baltazar Cruz's baby free of charge, insists it "did what any good hospital would have done given her unusual circumstances" by alerting DHS.

Still, despite DHS statements to the contrary, language seems a central issue in the state's case against Baltazar Cruz. It wouldn't be the first time this has happened in the U.S. In 2004 a Tennessee judge ordered into foster care the child of a Mexican migrant mother who spoke only an indigenous tongue. (Another judge later returned the child to her family.) Last year, a California court took custody of the U.S.-born twin babies of another indigenous, undocumented migrant from Oaxaca. After she was deported, the Oaxaca state government's Institute for Attention to Migrants fought successfully to have the twins repatriated to her in Mexico this summer. In such cases, says the SPLC's Bauer, a lack of interpreters is a key factor. When a mother can't follow the proceedings, "she looks unresponsive, and that conveys to a judge a lack of interest in the child, which is clearly not the case," she says. She also argues it's hard enough for any adult to learn a new language, "let alone when you're a migrant working long hours for low pay."

One of DHS's apparent fears is that an infant isn't safe in a home where the mother can articulate a 911 call solely in a language spoken only by some 50,000 Oaxacan Indians. Bauer points out that children have been raised safely in the U.S. by non-English-speaking parents for well over a century. Had they not, thousands of Italians and Russians would have had to leave their kids with foster care on Ellis Island. "Raising your child is one of the most fundamental liberties, and it can only be taken from you for the most serious concerns of endangerment," says Bauer. "Not speaking English hardly meets that standard."

Rosalba Piña, a Chicago attorney who co-hosts a local radio program on immigration law, agrees. She likens Mississippi officials to those who fought to keep 6-year-old Elián Gonzalez in the U.S. nine years ago because they argued his life would be better here than in impoverished Cuba with his father. "They're ignoring basic U.S. and international law," says Piña. "Unless there's some real threat to the child's life back in the home country, most judges know it's in the child's best interest to be with his parents." In the end, she notes, Rubí is a U.S. citizen who could return to this country at any time as an adult.

The next court hearing in Baltazar Cruz's case is slated for November. In the meantime, Mexican consular officials in the U.S. struck an agreement with Mississippi authorities this month to ensure that Mexico will be informed when nationals like Baltazar Cruz become embroiled in cases like this. Says Daniel Hernandez Joseph, director of Mexico's program for protection of citizens abroad: "The main concern of the Mexican government is not to separate immigrant families." Baltazar Cruz now has to persuade Mississippi judges that it should be their concern too.
 

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