With a mother and her three children facing deportation, the immigration judge wanted to make sure the woman understood the charges against her. But even with the help of an interpreter speaking in Q’anjob’al, a Mayan language, Magdalena Lucas Antonio de Pascual appeared to comprehend little.
“What language do you speak?” Judge Philip S. Law asked.
“The reason why I left my country?” she replied through the translator.
“I came across the border illegally because I needed to,” she later told the judge.
“I am going to ignore what you just told me, because that’s not what I asked you,” he said. “I am trying to explain the process and your rights.”
Throughout the 50-minute hearing, the misunderstandings kept coming.
Ms. Antonio de Pascual is one of many migrants coming into the United States from remote areas of Central America who only speak indigenous languages. An increase in the number of these migrants is adding to delays in a court system that is already overwhelmed by a backlog of more than 800,000 cases. Now the courts do not have enough interpreters to serve them, pushing the system to its limits, many lawyers, interpreters and advocates say.
United States immigration officials provide interpreters in as many as 350 languages over all, including Mandarin, Creole, Punjabi, Arabic and Russian. But Mam, K’iche’ and Q’anjob’al — all indigenous to Guatemala — have each become one of the 25 most common languages spoken in immigration court in the past few years.
In San Diego, a Q’anjob’al speaker had her asylum hearing pushed back for more than a year because no interpreters were available. In another case, a man whose primary language is Mam was unable to explain that his family had been killed in his Guatemalan town, which could be a basis for asylum, his lawyer said. The problems have seeped into the criminal courts as well: In the case of one man accused of a misdemeanor battery, the court interpreter, who was speaking in Ixil, did not ask him if he was competent to stand trial, as the judge instructed, but instead told him to “pray to God,” according to a complaint filed in Wisconsin state court.
Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge in Los Angeles and the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said the lack of interpreters was contributing to even more delays.
“It’s a colossal waste of our time to now have to reorganize hundreds of thousands of cases to deal with language issues and then there’s no interpreter,” Ms. Tabaddor said.
The small number of interpreters who do have a basic grasp of indigenous languages are still often ill-equipped to help — they must explain legal terms that are difficult to comprehend in any language and there are significant differences between regional dialects.
With migrants who cannot understand or be understood, lawyers and immigration experts say, there is no way to ensure fairness in court.
“We have an entire infrastructure set up where the default language is Spanish, but there are thousands of people coming to the southern border who can’t communicate that way — and they basically become invisible,” said Blake Gentry, a researcher who estimates that as many as a third of the migrants crossing the border through Arizona do not speak Spanish.
Immigration courts across the country have seen a steady rise in speakers of indigenous Guatemalan languages in the last five years, according to the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the court. And they are only the most recent additions to the list, which for several years has routinely included Zapotec, Mixtec, Ixil and Popti, languages from southern Mexico and Central America.
“The lack of interpretation for indigenous people has been a problem for a long time,” said Odilia Romero, a Zapotec interpreter who has been an activist with the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations for the last 20 years. “But what we see now is something entirely different: We have entire populations showing up with languages that we have not seen in the United States before.
“The court may provide an interpreter so they have fulfilled the requirement, but that doesn’t mean there is any real understanding,” she said.
Although many immigration courts have Spanish interpreters on staff, they rely on private contractors for interpreters of indigenous languages. Nearly all in-person interpreters come from one Virginia-based company, SOS International, which has an $80 million contract with the federal government.
The government could not say how many interpreters are available in specific languages and relies on SOS International, which did not respond to multiple inquiries. A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Immigration Review said the court tries to accommodate all non-English speakers and constantly monitors the cases nationally to meet new needs.
But getting interpreters to court is hardly a given: With so few of them in such high demand, they have to be arranged weeks or even months in advance. Judges are often forced to rely on interpreters by phone, making it difficult to hear and impossible to understand body language. And interpreter shortages are plaguing courts across the country, including New York and Chicago.
Even when interpreters are in court, it is routinely difficult to explain legal concepts to the migrants, particularly to the vast majority who do not have a lawyer. And because many indigenous interpreters do not speak English, they must use “relay” interpretation — with the judge’s English first being translated into Spanish before being translated to the indigenous language.
In many cases, said Ms. Tabaddor, the immigration judge, migrants who speak only rudimentary Spanish try to get by in that language, sometimes out of shame or a belief that Spanish will help them convince United States officials that they should be allowed to stay.
The problem extends to lawyers, who often can’t speak to their clients. Carmen Chavez, the executive director of the Casa Cornelia Law Center, a nonprofit immigration legal service in San Diego that helps match clients with interpreters, said that of the more than 2,000 cases the group handled last year, roughly a quarter of migrants from Latin America did not speak Spanish.
“It is constantly difficult to find someone who is qualified to interpret for these cases,” she said.
Even among interpreters certified to work in the courts, there is little oversight, and advocates worry whether interpreters and those who hire them are competent.
Since immigrating to Los Angeles from Guatemala in the 1990s, Policarpo Chaj has worked as a K’iche’ interpreter for lawyers, doctors and other businesses. Mr. Chaj said he has repeatedly heard of lawyers trying to hire anyone they meet who speaks K’iche’ and Spanish.
“Speaking a language is not the only thing that makes you qualified to be an interpreter,” he said. “You have to understand the law, you have know how to write, you have to know how to ask something concrete. You are dealing with people’s rights, it is your moral responsibility to make sure they understand exactly what the judge is saying.”
It’s possible for migrants to not encounter a single person who speaks their language on their path through the immigration system, making it all but impossible to give officials information. While most agents working along the Mexican border and in detention centers speak at least basic Spanish, few know any indigenous languages. Officers often grow frustrated and accuse these migrants of being uncooperative, leaving them even more confused, lawyers and advocates say.
Children who do not speak Spanish are especially isolated, shelter workers say. They are left without the ability to speak with counselors and are more likely to act out, then are punished or medicated. Parents who only speak an indigenous language often cannot communicate that they have been separated from their children.
Even migrants with lawyers are often forced to depend on their bilingual children for further help.
In court, Ms. Antonio de Pascual struggled to explain her situation through the court interpreter. The family arrived last summer, meeting her husband who has lived in the San Diego area for several years. She enrolled each of her children in school, and her 8-year-old daughter refused to miss class for the court hearing. Ms. Antonio de Pascual, who is illiterate, said she could not remember what forms she signed or questions she answered when she spoke to United States officials near the border last year.
Ms. Antonio de Pascual’s initial hearing had already been postponed because no interpreter was available. As this recent one ended, she asked the judge to give her six months to save money for a lawyer. Saying that would be too much time, the judge said he wanted her back in court in June and expected her to begin looking for a lawyer immediately.
When she was dismissed, her 12-year-old son, who speaks limited Spanish and Q’anjob’al, took the stack of court documents, placing them inside his small green backpack. He said he planned to spend the afternoon calling the phone numbers listed for pro bono lawyers who might take their case.