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Spanish is emerging as an essential form of communication for people from different language backgrounds who find themselves on the migrant trail to the United States.

My breathing labored under my N95, I looked up from my laptop and scanned the musty, overcrowded intake area of the emergency support center for my next client. Incoming asylum seekers, paid staff, and volunteers like me were sharing space in one of the classrooms of a shuttered elementary school in central Arizona. I’d been making small talk, complaining about the heat to a Venezuelan woman as I completed her paperwork. She snorted and said, “Better than that hielera where they had me.” A hielera is a refrigerator, an icebox, or an ICE-box—a pun on the acronym of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It underscores the aggressively air-conditioned concrete boxes in which detained immigrants find themselves—and, by extension, the cold-heartedness of the agency itself.

The next person in line was, apparently, not another in that day’s parade of Cubans and Venezuelans fleeing political persecution and desperate economic circumstances in their home countries. He was a tall, broad-shouldered, bearded man with long hair who looked to be of South Asian origin—part of a different migrant stream from the Indian state of Punjab, it turned out, whose residents are increasingly drawn to the United States for reasons ranging from high land prices to limited economic opportunities to social disruptions associated with drug trafficking in the region. I smiled and waved him over to my computer station, preparing myself for a challenging linguistic experience.

I’m used to relying on my Spanish proficiency—I speak it comfortably as a second language—in interactions with our clients, the majority of whom are native Spanish speakers. We see people from all over the place, though, and it’s not uncommon for volunteers and staff to have to bumble our way through interactions with clients from Romania, Bangladesh, or Georgia. I introduced myself, asked where he was from (India—“Sikh!” he clarified, pointing to an imaginary turban), what language he preferred (Punjabi), and if he spoke any English, since Indian clients sometimes do. He grinned, “No, Español!” and launched into fluid conversational Spanish, making for a quicker and smoother intake than I’d anticipated. When I asked the obvious question, he said that he’d learned to speak Spanish while surrounded by Spanish speakers in ICE detention.

These repeated interactions with “surprising” Spanish speakers point to areas that are ripe for empirical investigation beyond the anecdotal evidence I’m sharing here.

A bit of context: I volunteer at a nonprofit-operated facility that provides humanitarian assistance to refugees and asylum seekers who have just been released from any of the several immigration detention centers in the area. Buses arrive throughout the day with migrants—single men, single women, or families—who have just been paroled from ICE custody. They are allowed to travel elsewhere in the United States to live with their sponsors, usually family members, on the condition that they show up for regular check-ins with immigration enforcement and pending the outcome of their asylum cases.

Between detention and family reunification, there are logistics to handle and immediate physical needs to be met, and that’s where we come in. When I started doing this work in 2015, not long after the well-publicized surge of Central American migrants on the United States-Mexico border, volunteers would show up at the local Greyhound bus station and wait for ICE to drop off a busload of disoriented, tired, and hungry just-paroled migrants, who we’d try to assist with food, medicine, travel, and housing, as best we could. Compared to the bad old days, the current emergency support center is a volunteer’s dream: we now have a safe, calm, well-organized space to host people, even if it is a dilapidated school. Clients get off the bus and are given a quick orientation, followed by a medical evaluation and a COVID-19 test. Afterwards, they come to the intake room, where staff and volunteers take down their information, help them straighten out travel arrangements, make sure they understand their upcoming appointments, and answer questions. If time permits, they can then grab a shower, some clean clothes, a hot meal, and a bed, before they hop on a shuttle bus to the airport for a flight and a long-awaited family reunion on the other end.

My interaction with the Spanish speaker from Punjab wasn’t a one-off occurrence. Not long after, a client approached me with a question about his travel plans. Once I realized he was from Senegal, I tried French, a language I’ve used with refugees from Francophone Africa in the past. No go. Fortunately for both of us, the Senegalese man also spoke good conversational Spanish, and we figured it out. These repeated interactions with “surprising” Spanish speakers point to areas that are ripe for empirical investigation beyond the anecdotal evidence I’m sharing here.

Spanish is emerging as an essential lingua franca for people from different language backgrounds who end up on the migrant trail to the United States or become ensnared in the US immigration enforcement regime. A limited amount of work documents English as a lingua franca in contexts of immigration and asylum-seeking procedures (see for example, Guido 2008; Centonze and Taronna 2019) but linguists and scholars of immigration have thus far paid little attention to non-native speakers’ use of Spanish to negotiate migrant journeys. In the future, we might take a cue from existing work on non-native speakers’ learning of Spanish in so-called convivial settings in the United States, where people develop on-the-fly strategies for dealing with linguistic differences, such as Django Paris’s work on high school students’ appropriation of Spanish as “the second language of the United States” and Jane Hill’s documentation of early Spanish-English contact in working-class professions.

Formerly non-Spanish-speaking migrants learn Spanish under a variety of circumstances and learn different Spanish varieties. Some claim to have learned it primarily in immigrant detention, like the Punjabi speaker or a young Guatemalan man who spoke Spanish that sounded native-like to my L2 ears, but who told me that he had only ever spoken Qeq’chi, a Mayan language, until he had been detained with Spanish speakers for around three months. Others learn Spanish at different stops along the way and bring that knowledge with them to the United States, where it is immediately useful for communicating with their fellow asylum seekers and service providers.

It is fascinating to consider what Spanish as a lingua franca on the migrant trail might mean for the future of Spanish in the United States.

Some Haitians who pass through our center learned Spanish as part of the well-documented Haitian diaspora in Tijuana, Mexico, while others had spent time in Chile or elsewhere in South America before coming to the United States. I met one Haitian man who spoke passable Spanish but denied that he had ever lived outside Haiti prior to his recent journey, saying that he had picked up the language in Haiti. Interestingly, I met another who spoke Spanish but denied being able to speak Kreyòl, or Haitian Creole. This may have been due to a miscommunication or to an avoidance of Kreyòl as a marker of Haitian identity, perhaps due to the racial discrimination many immigrant Haitians experience. It may also simply reflect people’s reluctance to disclose details of their lives or migrant journeys to volunteers they have just met, soon after leaving ICE detention and knowing that their future in the United States as asylum seekers depends on how they tell their story and to whom.

Spanish makes its presence felt even when migrants wouldn’t call themselves Spanish learners. There has been an influx of Brazilians to our center, and while Portuguese and Spanish are mutually intelligible to some degree, volunteers and Brazilian clients often communicate in a sort of Spanish-Portuguese interlanguage, leveraging clients’ receptive competence in Spanish (i.e., their ability to understand spoken Spanish) and staff members’ incipient Portuguese learning.

It is fascinating to consider what Spanish as a lingua franca on the migrant trail might mean for the future of Spanish in the United States, given the diversity of Spanish varieties that we encounter at the center and that our clients have encountered during their journeys. The Spanish speaker from Punjab punctuated our conversation with “Vale!” and “Dale!” (okay, got it), markers of affiliation and understanding that index different varieties of Spanish from the Mexican-influenced variety that my colleagues and I speak. A Haitian, Indian, Brazilian, or Senegalese client at the facility might have contact with speakers of Spanish from Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Mexico. Linguistic anthropologists might ask how these migration experiences will continue to shape people’s personal and professional lives when they arrive at their destinations. For example, we might expect relationships and opportunities in the workplace to shift significantly when migrants’ L2 Spanish repertoires offer new possibilities for social and economic integration with US Spanish-speaking communities.


Brendan H. O’Connor

Brendan H. O’Connor is associate professor in the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University. He is a linguistic anthropologist and anthropologist of education who works broadly on issues of language, identity, and education in diverse multilingual contexts with a focus on Mexican American and Spanish-speaking youth and families.

Cite as

O’Connor, Brendan H.. 2022. “Spanish as a Migrant Lingua Franca.” Anthropology News website, February 14, 2022.