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Shortage Of Ancient Mayan Language Translators At Immigration Courts

– Posted in: Immigration Court

Many immigration clients, advocates, pundits, and commentators often overlook the little things that can make a big difference in court cases.

Like translators.

The role of interpreters seems a given to those who infrequently step into a courtroom.  But those of us who live within those four walls day in and day out know the reality.

Good interpreters make a hugh difference.

Good interpreters ensure a modicum of due process.

There are more than 275 languages spoken at immigration court.  Some are heard daily.  Many are heard only once in awhile.

As immigrant flows vary over time, the need for immigration court translators vary.

And the most common languages are different from region to region.  The dialects I’ve heard in Anchorage vary from those listened to in Tucson.  The dialects I’ve heard in Louisiana vary from those listened to in Boston.

Based on these experiences as a deportation and removal defense lawyer, I’ve learned that on any given day at immigration court, one is likely to witness at least five different languages voiced per courtroom.

On a local level, aware of the order in which judges call cases on the Master Calendar is influenced by the number of different languages on the docket, I arrange my court day traveling plans. Because the drive from my Riverside immigration law office to Downtown Los Angeles takes no less than two hours on a good day, I leave as much in advance of the hearing start time as possible, in the hopes of assuring my client’s case will be called earlier on the hearing docket.

Still, despite arriving early, it is not uncommon to have to wait my turn – sometimes over two hours – as the judge first calls matters for immigrants from countries with smaller case loads.  Apparently, the reasoning is that if a translator speaks a language with only 1 – 2 cases on docket, by hearing those cases first, the overall costs for appointed translators is reduced.

At Los Angeles immigration court, where Spanish-speaking matters usually dominate the local agenda, like the majority of lawyers, I have to sit patiently while cases for immigrants from countries like Korea, Thailand, Russia, and Lebanon are heard first. Of course, when my clients are from such nations, the odds increase that my cases will be heard sooner.

In the past several years, the percentage of cases communicated in certain languages at immigration court have risen, while others have dipped.

As expected, this has led to a shortage of interpreters who speak certain languages.

In particular, there is a shortage of like Mayan translators for immigrants who have arrived from Central America in recent months.

Ancient Mayan Languages Are Creating Problems For Today’s Immigration Courts

The day Vinicio Nicolas found out whether he would be allowed to stay in the United States, and hopefully far from the gang trying to recruit him in Guatemala, he brought along an interpreter. With the stakes so high, he wanted someone who spoke his native tongue. With the stakes so high, he wanted someone who spoke his native tongue. He had arrived in the U.S. just eight months before, and his English wasn’t good. But neither was his Spanish. The language the 15-year-old needed an interpreter to wrestle with — for the sake of his future — was an ancient Mayan one called Q’anjob’al, or Kanjobal.

The Influx Of Central American Refugees And The Need For Mayan Translators

Some of the languages heard at immigration court have long been rare to the U.S., forcing the court to scramble to locate competent translators.

Several times I’ve witnessed cases being continued and rescheduled for a new date due to the lack of an interpreter for languages articulated less frequently.

In  recent years, this problem has accelerated with the arrival of new Central American refugees at our borders seeking asylum protection.

As the Los Angeles Times has noted:

“Successive waves in recent years of more than 100,000 immigrants from Central America have created a shortage of people who can translate Mayan languages, especially K’iché (Quiché) and Mam. This is an especially acute need for arrivals from Guatemala, which is home to more than two dozen indigenous languages, but also from countries such as Honduras.”

A recent Department of Justice report confirmed this trend. Mam is ranked eight and Quiché is ranked 11th among the non-English languages spoken in U.S. immigration court.

  • 1. Spanish
  • 2. Mandarin
  • 3. Punjabi
  • 4. Arabic
  • 5. Creole
  • 6. Russian
  • 7. Portugese
  • 8. Mam
  • 9. Quiche
  • 10. French

The shortage of Mayan translators is not limited to Los Angeles. Immigration courts throughout the Southwestern United States feel a similar crunch.

Given the large number of Central American refugees seeking to enter the United States, this shortage does not bode well for an already severely backlogged immigration court system.

Yet, finding a solution is a must, a pre-conditional necessity for fundamental fairness.

There are those who would prefer that cases proceed without competent translators for new immigrants to this country.

They position is flat-out wrong.

That’s not our constitutional heritage,

As leader of the free world, the Department of Justice must somehow bridge this translator gap, especially for the many young children now facing immigration court proceedings.

Whether their claims conform to our standards for asylum relief, they deserve their day in court with competent translators assisting them to present their reasons for fleeing their home countries.

Anything less, after all, would be to shirk our commitment to due process.

Related Articles:

“No One Is Available”: When Immigration Judges Ask For Indigenous Languages Interpreters

Winning Asylum Is Even Harder For Central Americans Who Don’t Speak Spanish

Mayan Language Survives In Champaign, Poses Challenge In Immigration Court


By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics