Headshots of Xiomara Corpeno and Claudio Hernandez, smiling

Visibilizing Indigenous Migrants During the COVID-19 Pandemic

ByXiomara Corpeño, ERI Visiting Activist in Residence (Spring 2020) and Claudio Hernandez

The current global pandemic has widened disparities experienced by indigenous people who are forced to migrate to the U.S. Indigenous migrants are wrongly assumed to be Latinx even though they originate from pre-Columbian communities that precede the United States and Latinidad. They are Zapoteco, Triqui, Mixteco, Mam, Purepecha, Totonaco, Kanjobal, Mam, Akateko, Quiche, Mixe, and from many indigenous communities whose languages, experiences, and needs are distinct from each other, from federally recognized tribes in the U.S., and from migrant and U.S.-born Latino populations.

Many indigenous people are pushed to migrate due to conditions created by American foreign policy and the imposition of nation-states on their millennial culture that create unsustainable environments in their homeland, including climate-change induced drought, famine, and ecological damage. Once they arrive in the US, Indigenous migrants face a language interpretation crisis in healthcare, schools, and legal settings as well as racial discrimination. Social justice frameworks fail to account for the multi-faceted nature of oppression. They are currently locked into conditions that make them “essential” low-wage workers with increased exposure to COVID, and simultaneously invisibilized as uninsured “illegal” workers.

For example, often ignored and left out of conversations about equity in the pandemic are vast communities of indigenous migrants who reside in sprawling cities such as Los Angeles, Miami, and New York and in tight-knit kinship networks in small agricultural cities in Mississippi, Washington, Oregon, and California.  In spite of a high risk of infection of COVID-19, indigenous migrants continue toiling as essential workers in restaurants, garment centers, fruit and vegetable fields, and meat processing plants.

Indigenous erasure has been a central tool used to dispossess and relegate millions of people from Mexico and Central America to second-class status over five centuries. Despite ongoing efforts to eliminate them, indigenous people have not disappeared and we must acknowledge their resilience. The enduring contributions of Indigenous cosmovisions about how to organize society — which teach us how to live in balance and harmony with nature — are a model for reversing many of the social ills facing the planet.

For these reasons, it is critical that we learn how to “see” indigeneity, challenge institutional and social discrimination against indigenous communities, and commit to resourcing and scaling indigenous leadership.


The work of visibilization

In August 2019, Xiomara Corpeño, an immigrant rights organizer, partnered with Claudio Hernandez from Comunidades Indígenasen Liderazgo (CIELO), an indigenous women-led non-profit organization that works with indigenous communities residing in Southern California, with the intention of developing an intersectional analysis and praxis to visibilize indigenous migrants in the national conversation about immigrant rights. CIELO’s work includes a language assessment after workplace ICE raids targeted Indigenous Guatemalan migrants in Mississippi a year ago and the COVID Undocu-Indigenous Fund.


Here are 5 recommendations to promote structural change, based on our interviews with indigenous migrants as well as our years of experience in the migrant rights and indigenous human rights movement.

1. We must recognize and emphasize that indigenous migrants are here because the U.S. is in their home countries.

We must understand the different histories of the Indigenous communities that have long lived in what we know of as US, Mexico, and Central America. U.S. foreign policy and the policies of sending nations create disruptions which continue to force Indigenous people to move, which means movements for immigrant rights must include a critique of these policies. A long history of US intervention in agreements about free trade and agriculture (CAFTA, NAFTA, etc.), as well as fomenting political instability in the Majority World has resulted in extreme economic and political destabilization in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. More recently, the US has provided aid to Mexico and Guatemala to keep immigrants out of the U.S. and to develop security apparatuses that are used against the local population that is fighting for water and linguistic rights, among other efforts.

2. We must resource Indigenous autonomy including Indigenous-led organizations and also invest in their ability to build networks with other Indigenous-led efforts and organizations throughout the Americas, that is, within and outside of the US.

Since Latinx migrant rights organizations will serve Indigenous people at some point, they must also work directly with Indigenous-led organizations to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. This resourcing includes allowing Indigenous-led organizations to lead in ways that are culturally relevant to them as opposed to imposing a Western non-profit structure on their organization. It also includes providing money for technologies required for convenings, virtual or in-person (in non-Covid times), as much of this work requires trust building and relationship building.

3. We must expand conversations about migration to a frame of trans-border migrant justice.

Mexico has become an extension of the US southern border, receiving millions of dollars from the U.S. to stop migrants traveling north. US migrant rights organizations must work collaboratively with Mexican Indigenous organizations and Indigenous-serving Mexican organizations to make that passage saferWe have to resource Indigenous-led and Indigenous-serving immigrant rights organizations doing organizing and advocacy work directly with migrants in Mexico, Central America, and the US. While it’s not easy for someone to immigrate to Mexico, Mexico has a rich history of giving asylum and refugee visas, which are intended to enable safe passage to the US. Groups in Mexico have very little infrastructure and are severely underfunded, as a result of which some migrants end up spending years in Mexico with very few organizations advocating on their behalf.

4. We must treat Indigenous communities as a protected class, center language justice as part of migrant justice and treat all indigenous migrants as asylees.

All people have the right to understand and be understood in their language, especially those who have suffered invasion and colonization of their lands and State-sponsored efforts to eradicate their language. We noticed that many attorneys assume all people from Mexico or Guatemala speak Spanish, and they are often having conversations with someone who does not understand what they are saying. As a result, attorneys are often unable to gather sufficient information for an asylum claim. For example, if an attorney asks why they left, they might respond simply that there is no work. They are unable to explain — perhaps because they don’t speak enough Spanish or English to do so — that crop yields have been decimated because of extractive industries that have polluted land and water supplies, that the only paid work available is with the cartel, that they were forced into debt by corrupt local officials, or that they are caught in a land dispute with a neighboring town. Investing in robust training and resourcing for native indigenous speakers to serve as interpreters for their own community can be an immediate way to begin breaking down barriers to an effective asylum claim.

5. We must deepen our collaboration with Indigenous-led organizations and migrant leaders in ways that are meaningful.

Experimentation and collaboration with Indigenous organizations is necessary to deepen the alignment of Indigenous frameworks and other social justice frameworks. Government institutions, foundations, service providers and community organizations can and should reach out to local indigenous leaders to better understand Indigenous migrant communities in their area. Given that there is little to no investment in indigenous communities, these social sectors must look to resource these collaborations so that indigenous leaders can grow and expand their work. Programs regarding cultural awareness, interpretation, or consultations to facilitate language access plans are some of the ways we can begin to re-align our work to better serve indigenous migrants.


In many ways, we use a Latinx dominant immigrant rights framework in the US that reproduces and entrenches indigenous erasure. However, migrants are not part of a monolithic community and Indigenous migrants experience very different realities including discrimination, language and cultural barriers both in their home country, as well as on their migration journey. Therefore, when we work for justice for migrants, especially from Mexico and Central America, we must visibilize and count migrants from Indigenous communities distinctly and deepen our collaborations with Indigenous-led movements and Indigenous leaders.



About the Authors:

Xiomara Corpeño has organized immigrant communities for over 20 years across the continent, including extensive experience conducting rapid-response to immigration raids and supporting rural communities impacted by anti-immigrant policies and practices across the country. She was a Visiting Activist in Residence at ERI in Spring 2020.

Claudio Hernandez is queer Mixteco graduate student, and the child of migrant farmworkers based in Santa Maria, California. He incorporates his lived experience into both his graduate work and his work with CIELO.

© 2020. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.