Posted on August 10, 2016

Ancient Mayan Languages Are Creating Problems for Today’s Immigration Courts

Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times, August 9, 2016

The day Vinicio Nicolas found out whether he would be allowed to stay in the United States, and hopefully far from the gang trying to recruit him in Guatemala, he brought along an interpreter.

With the stakes so high, he wanted someone who spoke his native tongue. He had arrived in the U.S. just eight months before, and his English wasn’t good. But neither was his Spanish.

The language the 15-year-old needed an interpreter to wrestle with–for the sake of his future–was an ancient Mayan one called Q’anjob’al, or Kanjobal.

Successive waves in recent years of more than 100,000 immigrants from Central America–many of them boys and girls who came without their parents–have created a shortage of people who can translate Mayan languages, especially K’iché (Quiché) and Mam. This is an especially acute need for arrivals from Guatemala, which is home to more than two dozen indigenous languages, but also from countries such as Honduras.

Before entering an asylum office in Anaheim, interpreter Aldo Waykam asked Vinicio how he was feeling: “Tzet x’i a kul?”

“Watx,” the teenager replied. Good.

Spoken by almost 80,000 people in mostly rural municipalities in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, Kanjobal is common in places like Santa Eulalia–where Vinicio grew up–but rare everywhere else.

Mam, a Mayan language spoken by more than 500,000 people in Guatemala, ranked ninth in the top 10 languages spoken in U.S. immigration court last fiscal year. Quiché ranked 11th. Both surpassed French, according to the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Five years ago, Quiché and Mam didn’t even break the top 25 languages spoken in immigration court.

The shortage of interpreters is leading to a host of issues. Often, judges delay immigration hearings until one is found. At times, asylum seekers are deported even if they have a strong case because a qualified interpreter cannot be found in time. And unlike in immigration court, interpreters aren’t provided for free during asylum hearings.


Policarpo Chaj of Maya Vision, which serves indigenous Guatemalans in the Los Angeles area, said he’s fielded an increasing number of requests for interpreters.

Chaj, a Quiché interpreter, used to get one or two calls a year for interpreter services. Now, he said, he gets about 10 calls a month.

“We can’t meet the demand,” said Chaj, of Alhambra. His organization has 17 interpreters in six Mayan languages.

Many of the services are for immigration court, asylum hearings and Superior Court. But interpreters are also used in hospitals and schools, he said.

Some immigrants are unaware of their right to an interpreter in immigration court and settle for a Spanish interpreter who can’t accurately convey the client’s case for staying.