Ciudad Juarez, Mexico – For Claudia, the journey from a small Guatemalan village in Guatemala to the US-Mexico border is complicated because she only speaks her mother tongue, Ixil, which is one of the 21 Mayan languages in Guatemala.
On the way to seek refuge in the United States, she used gestures and a few sentences of Spanish that she understood to communicate with smugglers, asking for water, food, money, and going to the toilet.
Claudia and her 4-year-old son Manuel arrived at the US border at the end of December 2020. Her smugglers sent them to a highway next to the Rio Grande and told her to walk across the dry river and surrender to the US Border Patrol. For fear of retaliation, Claudia did not want to disclose her last name.
She said that the border patrol officers took photos, gave them two fingerprints, and sent them back to the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez on the same day. If they gave her any instructions, she would not understand.
After eight months in the El Buen Samaritano refuge in Ciudad Juarez, Claudia started to speak some Spanish, but it was not enough to ensure that she understood what happened in her immigration case or what she should do.
“I know more Spanish than I can speak. I try to tell everyone that I understand what they are telling me, but sometimes it is difficult for me to communicate, and it is difficult for me to ask some questions,” she said in a paused Spanish The language told Al Jazeera.
Claudia and dozens of people like her who do not speak mainstream languages such as Spanish or Portuguese may struggle for months or years at the US-Mexico border because few or no interpreters can speak them. Native languages to help them navigate. Immigration and asylum system.
The director of the shelter, Juan Fierro, said that Claudia may have to wait a long time to apply for asylum.
Fierro told Al Jazeera: “We have contacted international aid organizations to try to find an Ixil interpreter, because without an interpreter, she will not be processed by the US system.”
Between January 2021 and June 2021, almost all of the 500 asylum-seekers housed in the Fierro Shelter have waited 6 to 12 months before going to the United States to seek asylum. Only those who were recently deported back to Mexico and Claudia still exist.
In the first half of 2021 alone, Fierro received more than 50 non-Spanish immigrants and asylum seekers, most of whom only spoke the Mayan language—almost twice as many as in the whole of 2020.
“Most of them are tired of waiting for an interpreter and leave to return to their hometown. Only a very small number of people wait long enough to get an interpreter and start their immigration process,” Fierro said.
This year, the number of immigrants and asylum seekers from small villages has almost doubled, which has created a long-term backlog in the immigration legal system.
The president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, Amiena Khan, said that due to the lack of trained interpreters, most cases involving indigenous language speakers are now being rescheduled.
“The problem we see is that there are too few indigenous interpreters in our community, especially for Mayan languages, and the case is being rearranged to a place where the judge can be sure they get the right interpreter,” Khan told Al Jazeera.
According to data from Syracuse University’s Transaction Records Access Information Exchange (TRAC), the U.S. immigration court system has over 1.3 million backlogs.
According to data obtained by TRAC, as of January 2021, there are nearly 30,000 immigrants with pending cases using at least 40 different languages.
According to the TRAC report on April 26, “Although indigenous languages and other rare languages account for a small portion of pending MPP cases-only 337 out of 29,423 cases-the need for language places demands on immigration and immigration courts A unique challenge”.
It is difficult to calculate how many immigrants who speak rare languages may enter or are about to enter the immigration system.
Given past figures, the speakers of indigenous languages may be less than 1% of the total, but dozens or hundreds of people may end up in trouble.
Khan said: “These cases will not come to us until December 2023, which means that we already have a backlog of cases, which has exceeded any time needed to find interpreters during the immigration process for most indigenous communities. “
Khan said the immigration judges “have a certain degree of frustration” because the problem “is causing massive inefficiencies and backlogs.”
Not only must the U.S. immigration courts contend with native speakers waiting to be processed, but the U.S. criminal court system is increasingly encountering them.
Pablo, a 25-year-old Rarámuri from an indigenous tribe in northern Mexico, crossed the border into the United States with a bag of marijuana as payment to smugglers.
He was arrested in January with a group of Mexican immigrants carrying marijuana. Although all others can communicate with the court in Spanish to accept the verdict, Pablo’s case is still pending and he is still in prison.
“Many Lala Muli who arrived at the border have not been brought to court, mainly because they do not speak the local language and it is difficult to find an interpreter for them,” said Pablo and another member of the Texas Public Defender. Chris Carlin said. A dozen Raramuri.
Carlin said that 10 years ago, when Laramuri indigenous immigrants were found carrying sacks of marijuana at the border, “the judge decided to send them back to Mexico only by warning them because they didn’t understand what was going on,” Carlin said. .
Dale Taylor, a former American missionary and full-time translator for La Lamuri, said that the number of recent cases like Pablo’s was “shocking” and that he was unable to handle too many cases personally. Since January, he has been asked to help with 42 cases.
Taylor said that he is the only Raramuri to English interpreter in the United States who has received formal training. Although he knew about Pablo’s case, Taylor said he still had 10 cases waiting for him.
Most native language interpretations in the US courts are done over the phone and are done by for-profit companies such as Lionbridge and SOS International. But while this eased some backlogs of cases, the judges said that the remote system made it difficult to assess applicants.
“Each claim is heard individually based on facts. I have to evaluate the credibility of the individuals in front of me, if they don’t speak this language, what should I do,” Khan said.
Odilia Romero, an independent interpreter for the indigenous Zapotec language and co-founder of Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo (CIELO), said that many interpreters who assist the US courts do not have the skills to represent immigrants in official hearings.
“The few interpreters in the U.S. courts are not educated or trained to properly interpret for native immigrants. They are either gardeners or local workers who immigrate from the same community, but that doesn’t mean they know how to serve U.S. immigration courts. Translate correctly,” Romero said.
Even if asylum seekers like Claudia and Pablo finally appear in court, after a long wait for an interpreter, there is no guarantee that they will be able to clearly communicate their asylum application.
Romero said: “This not only puts indigenous immigrants at the end of the immigration court, but it also violates basic human rights.”
Claudia from the shelter said that it is impossible to return to Guatemala.
“I will wait as long as I need it. I can’t go back to Guatemala. I left for a reason, otherwise I will stay there,” she said.