CHAMPAIGN – Immigration courts in central Illinois are struggling to effectively represent people who only speak an indigenous Mayan language.
About 550 people in the Champaign-Urbana area speak the language, called Q’anjob’al, The Chicago Tribune reported. Q’anjob’al is one of Guatemala’s more than 20 indigenous Mayan languages.
The National Immigrant Justice Center said there’s been an increase in Q’anjob’al-speaking immigrants over the past eight months.
The language was the 17th most popular language in immigration courts across the U.S. in 2016, up from 25th place two years before, according to Department of Justice statistics. Two other indigenous Mayan languages – Mam and Quiche – were in the list’s top 10.
Ashley Huebner, an attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago – a program with the Heartland Alliance that provides legal assistance to immigrants – said the lack of interpreters impedes attorneys’ “ability to fully represent these individuals and for these individuals to have access to protection.”
“When we don’t have a decent interpreter who can communicate with them, and then you know you have to rely on a family member or someone in the community and you’re asking these questions about prior gender violence or family violence, you’re not necessarily going to get the correct information or the full picture,” she said.
The government is required to provide interpreters for defendants in immigration court hearings. Interpreters for the Mayan language often are flown in from other parts of the U.S.
Sometimes, two interpreters are required, or an interpreter offers their services over the phone instead of in person.
Hillary Richardson, a staff attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, once found a DJ in Guatemala to translate for a client over Skype.
“There is a Guatemalan community in Chicago, but as far as being able to find anyone who speaks Q’anjob’al and Spanish or Q’anjob’al and English to be able to help, it’s been difficult,” Richardson said.