Immigration courts face problems with Ancient Mayan languages

The arrival, in recent years, of over a hundred thousand Central American immigrants, has created problems for immigration courts in the US by causing a shortage of translators for Mayan languages such as Mam and K’iche (Quiche). This is an important requirement for those arriving from Guatemala, which has more than two dozen indigenous languages, as well as those from other nations, such as Honduras.

Kanjobol is a common language in areas such as Santa Eulalia, and is spoken by almost 80,000 people in rural municipalities in Huehuetenango, Guatemala but is rare elsewhere. In immigration courts in the US in 2015, Quiche ranked 11th and Mam ninth in the top ten languages spoken, surpassing French. This was shown by a review by the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration. Five years ago, the two languages were not even in the top 25.

A range of issues is being caused by the shortage of interpreters. Judges often delay immigration hearings until an interpreter can be located. Sometimes immigrants seeking asylum may be deported despite have a strong case because an interpreter cannot be found to put their argument. Also, interpreters are not provided free of charge during asylum hearings.

The shortage of interpreters is exacerbated by a lack of interpreter courses for the Mayan language, according to Spanish-English court interpreter, Naomi Adelson, who says the demand for Mam speaker has gone “off the charts”.