Mam and Quiché in Immigration Courts

A couple of days ago, the Los Angeles Times published this story about language problems that asylum seekers from Guatemala and Honduras can face. While many people think of these countries as Spanish-speaking, that misses a range of linguistic diversity. In fact, two languages from this region have become so frequent that they are now the 10th and 11th most common languages in US immigration court: Mam and Quiché. These languages have surpassed French in US immigration courts. But this raises an difficult problem. Courts have no trouble finding translators for, say, French or Spanish. (In fact, many immigration courts directly employ Spanish-language translators.) But finding speakers of Mam and Quiché are a different story. There simply aren’t so many speakers of these languages. In some contexts, like the asylum office, applicants have the obligation to find their own interpreters. But in immigration court, it’s the court itself that provides translators. This, inevitably, leads to delays in court cases and, unfortunately, errors in translation. The end result could be a denied application and deportation.

There is no clear answer to this problem. The United States does not have an official language, and even if it did, basic concerns of justice demand that everyone have linguistic access to courts. The costs and logistics prevent courts from reaching the ideal of full access, but that is not a reason to excuse courts from trying. No doubt, courts will find ways to address this problem, as more speakers of Mam, Quiché, and other languages gain experience and certification in translating. In the meantime, however, the lack of translators is leading to delayed and denied justice.

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