Ciudad Juárez, Mexico – For Claudia, the journey from her small Guatemalan village to the US-Mexico border was complicated by the fact that she could only speak her native Ixil, one of Guatemala’s 21 Mayan languages.
On her way to what she hoped would be asylum in the United States, she communicated with the smugglers with hand gestures and the few words of Spanish she knew, asking for water, water. food, money and going to the bathroom.
Claudia and her four-year-old son Manuel arrived at the US border at the end of December 2020. Her smugglers dropped them off on a highway right next to the Rio Grande and told her to walk past the dry river and get to the US border patrol. Claudia did not want her last name published for fear of reprisal.
She said border patrol officers took photos, took their fingerprints and returned them to the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez the same day. If they gave her instructions, she didn’t understand them.
After eight months at the El Buen Samaritano shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Claudia has started speaking a little Spanish, but not enough to make sure she understands what is going on with her immigration file, or what she should be doing. .
“I understand more Spanish than I can speak it. I try to tell everyone that I understand what they are telling me, but sometimes it is difficult for me to communicate, to ask questions, ”she told Al Jazeera in hesitant Spanish.
Claudia and the dozens like her who don’t speak a common language, like Spanish or Portuguese, can languish at the US-Mexico border for months or years, as there are few or no interpreters who speak their language. indigenous language to help them navigate the immigration and asylum systems.
A long wait
Director of the shelter Juan Fierro said Claudia will likely have to wait a long time before she can apply for asylum.
“We have contacted international aid organizations to try to find an Ixil interpreter because without him she will not be processed” through the American system, Fierro told Al Jazeera.
Almost all of the 500 asylum seekers housed at the Fierro shelter from January to June 2021 left to pursue their claims in the United States after waiting between six and 12 months. Only those recently deported to Mexico and Claudia remain.
Fierro has taken in more than 50 non-Spanish speaking migrants and asylum seekers, mostly speaking only Mayan languages in the first half of 2021 alone – almost double that of 2020 as a whole.
“Most of them tire of waiting for an interpreter and leave to return to their hometown. Very few of them wait long enough to get an interpreter and start their immigration process, ”said Fierro.
This year, the number of migrants and asylum seekers from small villages speaking only their traditional languages apprehended at the border has almost doubled, creating a long backlog for the immigration legal system.
Amiena Khan, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said most cases involving native language speakers are now postponed due to a lack of qualified interpreters.
“The problem we are seeing is that in our community there are too few indigenous interpreters, especially for the Mayan languages and cases are postponed so that a judge can be sure they have an appropriate interpreter. “Khan told Al Jazeera.
According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), the US immigration court system already has more than 1.3 million pending cases.
At least 40 different languages are spoken by the nearly 30,000 migrants who had pending cases in January 2021 according to data obtained by TRAC.
“Although indigenous languages and other rare languages represent only a small number of pending MP cases – only 337 out of 29,423 – the need for access to languages presents unique challenges for migrants and the courts of law. immigration, ”according to an April 26 TRAC report.
It is difficult to calculate how many migrants with rare languages might be or about to enter the immigration system.
Based on the numbers from the past, native language speakers might make up less than 1% of the total, but it’s tens or hundreds that could find themselves in some kind of limbo.
“These cases won’t come to us until December 2023, that means we already have a backlog, and that adds to the time it takes to find interpreters for most indigenous communities as part of a process of immigration, ”Khan said.
Khan said there is “a level of frustration” among immigration judges as this issue “creates mass inefficiency and backlog.”
It’s not just U.S. immigration courts that have to contend with native language speakers waiting for cases to be processed, the U.S. court system encounters them more and more as well.
Pablo, a 25-year-old Rarámuri from an indigenous tribe in northern Mexico, crossed the border into the United States with a bag of cannabis as payment to his smugglers.
He was arrested in January, along with a group of Mexican migrants also carrying cannabis. While everyone else was able to communicate in Spanish to engage with the court to be sentenced, Pablo’s case is still pending and he remains in prison.
“Many Raramuri arriving at the border are not yet brought to court, mainly because they do not speak the language and it is difficult to find interpreters for them,” said Chris Carlin, a public defender of the Texas representing Pablo and another. dozen of Raramuri.
Carlin said that 10 years ago, when indigenous Raramuri migrants were found at the border with bags of cannabis, “the judge decided to let them return to Mexico with only a warning, as they did not understand what was happening, ”Carlin mentioned.
Dale Taylor, a former US missionary and full-time interpreter for Raramuri, said the number of recent cases like Pablo is “alarming” and there are too many for him to deal with in person. Since January, he has been asked to help in 42 cases.
Taylor said he was the only formally trained Raramuri-to-English interpreter in the United States. Although he is aware of Pablo’s case, Taylor said there are 10 cases ahead of him.
Most Indigenous language interpretation in US courts is done over the phone, by for-profit companies such as Lionbridge and SOS International. But while it has reduced the backlog of cases, judges say the remote system makes it difficult to assess the claimant.
“Each request is heard individually on the basis of the facts. I have to do a credibility assessment of the person before me, how can I do that if they don’t speak the language, ”Khan said.
Odilia Romero, a freelance interpreter of the indigenous Zapotec language and co-founder of Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo (CIELO), said many interpreters assisting US courts lack the skills to represent migrants in official hearings.
“The few interpreters in American courts are not educated or trained to translate properly for native immigrants. They are either gardeners or local workers who have migrated from the same communities, but that doesn’t mean they know how to translate correctly for a US immigration court, ”Romero said.
Even if asylum seekers like Claudia and Pablo end up in court, after a long wait for a translator, there is no guarantee that they will be able to clearly communicate their asylum claim.
“This not only leaves indigenous immigrants at the very end of immigration courts, but also violates a basic human right,” Romero said.
Claudia at the shelter said returning to Guatemala was not an option.
“I’ll wait, as long as it takes. I cannot go back to Guatemala, there is a reason why I left, otherwise I would have stayed there, ”she said.