Increase in Guatemalan Migrants Spurs Need for Mayan Speakers
By Molly Smith
When Elbia first arrived in Texas from her native Guatemala, English was as foreign a language to her as Spanish. Her native language is Mam, a Mayan language spoken by more than half a million people in Central America.
Elbia, 31, learned Spanish during the 16 months she spent in the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor awaiting her asylum hearing. Her fellow detainees served as her teachers.
“They would say, ‘Elbia, what are you going to do if you don’t speak Spanish?’” she said.
Elbia was released three months ago and now lives in an Austin migrant shelter for women and children while she appeals her case. Today, she can easily carry a conversation with her housemates who are from Mexico and Honduras and with a reporter seeking to tell her story. Reporting Texas is not using her surname because Elbia fears her husband might find her if it appeared in the story.
The increase in Central American migrants entering the U.S. is changing the language of immigration in Texas. From January through August of this year, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 66,362 people from Guatemala along the southwest border. Two thirds, or 44,747, of these apprehensions occurred in Texas; 30,021 were in the Rio Grande Valley alone.
Immigration courts and nonprofit legal and social service organizations increasingly have to find Mayan language interpreters to translate for many of their Guatemalan clients.
There are more than 30 Mayan languages spoken today, said Sergio Romero, an assistant professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas at Austin. They are spoken primarily in Guatemala but also in Belize and Southern Mexico.
Mam ranked 9th in the top 10 languages spoken in U.S. immigration courts in fiscal year 2016, and Quiché – another Mayan language – ranked 10th, according to the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review. In fiscal year 2011, neither language broke the top 25.
Immigration courts decided 22,686 cases involving Guatemalans in fiscal year 2016, which accounted for about 16 percent of all cases heard.
In a state like Texas, certified Spanish language interpreters are easy to come by. Three hundred ninety-one of the state’s 435 licensed court interpreters speak Spanish. Yet not a single one speaks a Mayan language.
The shortage of qualified interpreters delays hearings and drives many Guatemalans to decide to use Spanish in critical court hearings.
Romero is fluent in Quiché, Kaqchikel and Q’eqchi’ and receives calls at least once a week from lawyers, immigrant advocacy groups or detention centers across the nation in need of an interpreter. He said that most of these calls are for languages or dialects that he doesn’t speak.
Many Mayan languages have significant dialectical variation, and speakers of different dialects are often unable to understand each other.
When Elbia’s day in court finally arrived, she had access to a Mam interpreter through video conferencing. But she believes that because the interpreter spoke a different dialect, she was unable to accurately communicate her case to the judge and explain why she couldn’t return to Guatemala.
She says she fled to the U.S. in 2015 to escape her abusive ex-husband, who had threatened to kill her. Coming to the U.S. in search of asylum was “the only solution,” she said, because he had previously been deported and thus could not pursue her.
Violence against women occurs at high rates in Guatemala, and about two women are killed daily, according to the United Nations.
Elbia said that few people in the U.S. understand just how much violence there is in Guatemala. “There is violence from gangs and in families, and there aren’t laws that protect or help women,” she said.
Elbia understood enough Spanish to realize that the interpreter did not fully understand her and was not correctly relaying what she had told him in Mam to a second interpreter who communicated her testimony to the judge from Spanish to English. “He changed the story and presented it in the opposite way,” she said. “He said that [my ex and I] had known each other before the marriage. But my family was the one who arranged it, and I didn’t know him.”
Many Mayan speakers in the U.S. do not speak English well enough to communicate legal terms during a court hearing, so interpretation is often a three-way process.
“You’ve got a telephone game of sorts going on, and the judges are making their decisions about people’s asylum claims having heard things go through two separate interpreters,” said Julie Pasch, a managing attorney at the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR).
All of ProBAR’s attorneys speak Spanish, but Pasch said they have no way of knowing if mistakes were made during the translation from the Mayan language to Spanish.
Romero interprets almost exclusively by phone because he simply cannot travel to every city or state where he is needed, he said. Working by phone is often more difficult than in person given the absence of visual cues.
Although there has been an increase in telephonic interpretation services in both the U.S. and Guatemala in recent years, these services can be costly for small nonprofit organizations with limited resources.
The State Bar of Texas’ Language Access Fund is the first program of its kind to connect legal aid organizations and pro bono attorneys in Texas with free interpretation services.
Qualifying organizations, such as ProBAR, are given free use of LanguageLine, a telephonic and document interpretation service used by state agencies. They can also be reimbursed for using an alternative service as long as the cost is equal to or less than what LanguageLine charges the state.
Sixty different organizations have used the fund since it started in 2014 to assist clients speaking 69 different languages, said Briana Stone, a staff attorney in the State Bar of Texas Legal Access Division.
From October 2015 to September 2016, the Language Access Fund received 60 calls for Mam interpretation. Mam is the 12th most requested, and Quiché is 15th.
There is considerably more grant funding for interpretation for unaccompanied minors than for adults, said Manoj Govindaiah, the director of Family Detention Services for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which provides free legal services to detained migrants.
He and his staff often have to do things they’d rather not, like communicating with a client in Spanish, using a child to interpret for a parent or finding a family member to interpret, Govindaiah said.
“A lot of times the people that we’re working with are fleeing their homes because of some sort of domestic violence or household violence, so we have no idea which family member might be possibly harming them,” said Govindaiah. “It’s incredibly problematic to not have a neutral person that can serve as an interpreter.”
Many Mayan speakers living in the U.S. are undocumented and therefore cannot be used as interpreters in court.
To become a licensed court interpreter in Texas, an applicant must be fingerprinted and pass a criminal history background check by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the FBI.
The federal Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) has staff interpreters, and they must be either federal or state certified or have passed a screening test. At present, not a single one of its 66 interpreters speak a Mayan language.
Kathryn Mattingly, the assistant press secretary for EOIR, said in an email that the agency is “actively recruiting to address the current need for languages, including those Central American indigenous languages.” Given the difficulty of finding a qualified interpreter for court hearings, many detained clients chose to argue their case in Spanish so as not to delay the hearing even though they are not fluent. “We’ll remind them that they have the right to an interpreter in their language, but they don’t want to risk the delay,” said Pasch.
Elbia plans to argue her asylum case in Spanish the next chance she gets because she believes she will be able to do a better job representing herself as her confidence in Spanish grows. She also doesn’t want to risk being assigned a speaker of another dialect. “I’m going to keep fighting it,” she said.
Still, she worries she won’t be able to respond adequately to questions that focus on details or specifics of her case, and she cannot read or write in Spanish.
These days, she only speaks Mam when she calls her three children, who are still in Guatemala. She hopes that she will eventually be able to bring them to the U.S. “It’s not fair that I am safe here and they remain there,” she said.