Immigration

“No one is available”: when immigration judges ask for indigenous languages interpreters

When undocumented immigrants are at court or are detained at the border, they face considerable hurdles in addition to lacking documents: they don't speak English and, in some cases, they don't speak Spanish either. Many who come from countries like Guatemala and Honduras only understand their indigenous languages.
30 Jul 2018 – 7:14 PM EDT

HOUSTON, Texas - Alexander and Douglas had to wait. Juana and Santiago too. The Houston juvenile immigration court judge, Chris Brisack, dialed over and over again the numbers of two interpreters to translate what he was saying to two undocumented teenagers who were in his court. But most of the time he received the same answer: “ I'm sorry, your honor. No one is available."

It was 8:35 on a Tuesday morning. Almost 20 young Guatemalans were waiting to hear what the judge had to say: whether they were going to be deported, or if they were going to be given more time to make decisions. They entered in line, deep in thought. The boys were wearing shirts, ties and trousers; the girls were wearing dresses or shirts and pants, and one of them was wearing a pink helmet covered with signatures and a "God bless you" that someone wrote in black ink.

Alexander and Douglas were the first to listen to the judge. Their mother tongue is Mam, a Mayan language spoken in western Guatemala. Although they speak Spanish, their indigenous dialect is what they understand best. But Brisack doesn't understand Mam, nor do the young immigrants understand English.

The judge then made phone calls seeking assistance for all of them. A woman answered, he asked for an interpreter and he was transferred. He waited a few minutes. But the call returned to the operator: “I’m sorry, your honor. If you are back here that's not a good sign,” she said. He nodded. “There are no interpreters available,” finished the woman.

The judge called the other operator and the answer was the same, so he had to make a decision. “Gentlemen, do you speak Spanish?,” he asked the two teenagers in English, and a person sitting on their left translated for them. “Yes,” they both replied. “ We couldn’t find a Mam interpreter," he explained. “I'm going to put your cases with the group and we will work in Spanish. Perhaps this won't be the best option, but we are going to put you at the end in that group. Take a seat back there." The two youngsters obeyed.

“Failed attempt,” said Brisack to himself.

The same thing happened to Juana, another teenage girl who was there for her hearing. They couldn't find a translator for her language either, Chuj, also from Guatemala. She insisted that she understood Spanish. She wanted to explain to the judge that she could not find a lawyer to help her fill out her asylum application and that was the reason she did not bring it with her.

The lack of interpreters for indigenous languages is a problem for immigration judges in U.S. courts. John Moore / Getty Images

In another case, 17-year-old Domingo’s, the call got disconnected. Brisack — and the translator — had been explaining the process and his rights to the young man for over 10 minutes. Brisack tried to connect again with an interpreter and the answer was, “ Your honor, they are all busy. The next one will be available in about two hours." He couldn't do anything. He thanked the operator and hung up.

During the break, the boys joked in Spanish about their poor English skills. One said to the other, "If the judge asks me: 'What's your name?' I would say: Im from Honduras". Everyone laughed.

A national problem

The lack of interpreters for indigenous or exotic languages is a problem for immigration judges in U.S. courts. Although the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, Ashley Tabaddor, does not know exactly how many translators of this type there are, she admitted over a phone call that the number is limited: “ Sometimes there is only one or two for the whole country (...) There aren’t enough."

She explained that when judges are faced with cases where they cannot find a translator on the official lines hired by the Department of Justice (DOJ), they must reschedule that person's hearing for another day and then call again: “This adds more time to the backlog already in the courts,” she explains. According to Tabaddor, while this doesn't happen daily, it has become a problem for judges, one that happens “regularly."


Rob Barnes, regional public information officer for the Department of Justice, told Univision News that the Executive Office for Immigration Review “does its best to meet the linguistic needs of all people with limited English proficiency and those who do not speak English, but who must appear before the immigration court."

However, he admits that “there may be occasions” when there is no indigenous language interpreter.

According to him, they work with two companies, Lionbridge and LSA Global Solutions II, Inc. They have contracted telephone interpreting services with those companies, both in person and as scheduled calls. “Immigration judges handle communication and interpretation problems on a case-by-case basis,” Barnes said without elaborating on the limitations the DOJ faces as to the number of translators.

Univision News also found that public attorneys defending immigrants in federal courts in San Diego, California, face the same problem.


At the border

Efren Olivares, head of the program for Racial and Economic Justice of the nonprofit legal organization Texas Civil Rights Project, recognizes that the lack of interpreters “is definitely a problem", not only in the courts, but also at border ports.

He illustrates this with the case of Guatemalan Mario Pérez Domingo, who on July 5 th, 2018, was separated from his 2-year-old child after being stopped by a Border Patrol agent while crossing through McAllen, Texas.

He is Guatemalan, speaks Mam and little Spanish,” says Olivares. “Something that contributed to this separation was the lack of an interpreter (...) There was a misunderstanding in the Spanish he speaks and the one the agent spoke. They didn’t provide an interpreter for him." As a result, the official doubted the paternity of Pérez Domingo, although he carried a copy of the birth certificate of the child, which did not seem authentic to the agent.

The Texas Civil Rights Project took the case and verified with the Guatemalan consulate and the man’s family in that country that Pérez was indeed the father. They have not reunited yet, despite the fact that the charges for illegal entry into the country against them were dropped more than a week ago.

In photos: Central American immigrants await asylum in the United States

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