Lack of Competent Interpreters In Foreign Indigenous Languages Creates Problems In U.S. Immigration Courts

Written by: Taher Kameli, Esq.

Have you ever heard of Q’anjob’al, Mam, and K’iche’?  Probably not. They are 3 languages indigenous to the country of Guatemala.  What makes them significant for United States immigration law purposes is that they have become 3 of the 25 most common languages spoken in US immigration courts in recent years.  The lack of competent interpreters in Q’anjob’al, Mam, and K’iche’, and other foreign indigenous languages, is creating significant problems in the US immigration courts.

Many of the migrants who have come to the United States in recent years are from remote areas of Central America and only speak their foreign indigenous languages.  Besides Q’anjob’al, Mam, and K’iche, other common foreign indigenous languages seen in US immigration courts are Zapotec, Mixtec, Ixil, and Popti (languages from southern Mexico and Central America).

While it may be assumed that all Mexican and Central American migrants speak Spanish, such is not the case. “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.

Moreover, the problem is that there are inadequate interpreters in these foreign indigenous languages, such that immigrants are unable to understand the proceedings in their cases in US immigration courts. “The lack of interpretation for indigenous people has been a problem for a long time. . . . 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”, said Odilia Romero, a Zapotec interpreter.  Without the immigrant understanding the language spoken in court, it is hard to see how the immigrant can have fairness in court.

Therefore, every person who speaks a foreign indigenous language will not necessarily be a competent interpreter in US immigration courts.  “Speaking a language is not the only thing that makes you qualified to be an interpreter. . . . 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”, said Policarpo Chaj, a K’iche’ interpreter.

With a limited supply of, and a high demand for, competent interpreters in foreign indigenous languages, they need to be scheduled weeks or even months in advance to ensure their availability in a specific court proceeding.  Judges often need to rely on interpreters by phone, making it difficult to hear and impossible to see body language.

Interpreter shortages are another problem for US immigration courts, already significantly burdened by a backlog of more than 800,000 cases.  TheKameli Law has extensive experience in successfully representing immigrants in US immigration courts. Whether the issue be finding a competent interpreter, or some other immigration litigation matter, please contact the Kameli Law, at or 312-233-1000, to protect your right to have a fair day in court.

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