HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — A new study found that hundreds of asylum-seekers placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols program spoke 40 different languages, including several rare and Indigenous languages. This can slow down the immigration court process because of difficulties finding court interpreters, and give migrants who don’t speak mainstream languages an unfair disadvantage.
The Indigenous and rare languages accounted for 337 of the pending 29,423 MPP cases, and included several cases where the migrants spoke many different sign languages and Indigenous sign languages, according to a new report by the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University
Most of the pending MPP cases — 98.7% — spoke Spanish or Portuguese, the study found. But even a few delayed cases can further clog the U.S. immigration court system, which already has over 1.3 million backlogged cases. And it can result in the migrants’ asylum claims being compromised in court, Austin Kocher, a TRAC research assistant professor who headed the study told Border Report.
“It’s hard to find interpreters. It’s challenging to fill out forms or documents, either in Spanish and English. And even immigration judges themselves, who want to do a good job and get the right interpreters into court they also have a hard time finding interpreters for these rare languages and that can cause scheduling difficulties with the court,” Kocher said via zoom from his New York offices earlier this week.
Currently, thousands of migrants each day are crossing into South Texas from Mexico and pursuing asylum claims, adding to the court backlog of cases, which could further be delayed if language becomes an issue in court.
The TRAC study examined all pending MPP cases as of the end of January, when President Joe Biden took office and suspended MPP, or “Remain in Mexico” program, that was implemented in 2019 by the Trump administration.
Under the Biden administration, thousands of those asylum-seekers have been admitted into the United States, including at least 70 Indigenous speakers, the study found.
At least 4,000 of the cases have been transferred to regular immigration courts and out of MPP. But their language barriers and asylum claims remain and are something the U.S. immigration court system needs to update and confront quickly if it is to get a handle on the backlogs, Kocher said.
“Not only do these migrants face additional barriers to applying for asylum, finding rare-language interpreters creates scheduling challenges for immigration judges,” the study found.
Most of the asylum-seekers who speak a “rare language” emanated from Guatemala, which had a dozen languages represented in MPP cases. The most — 71 cases — involved asylum-seekers who speak Mam; 59 speak Quiché, and 40 speak Kekchi (also spelled Q’eqchi’). Other rare languages from Guatemala included: Konjobal; Western Konjobal (also known as Akateko): Cubulco Achi; Chalchiteco; Chuj; Western Jacalteco (also spelled Jakalteco); and Cakchiquel (also spelled Kaqchikel).
There were eight Quechua speakers from Ecuador, and nine who spoke the Honduran languages of Mískito and Garífuna. Other non-Western languages found in the study included Somali, Sudanese, and Tamil.
“For some of these rare languages there may only be one or two or three certified qualified interpreters in the country. So it’s not easy at all to find interpreters for these people,” Kocher said.
That can result in the migrants settling to use Spanish or Portugues translators, which they might not truly understand.
“Rare language users agree to use a Spanish interpreter or translator in court even if that’s not their best language because maybe that’s all that’s provided. And even immigration judges may not care or necessarily have the deduction to get the right interpreters into the courtroom,” Kocher said. “There could be many more rare language speakers who haven’t been documented.”
And that doesn’t even begin to address the hearing-impaired asylum-seekers who require Indigenous sign language interpreters who are just as rare and difficult to find, he said. The study found over 30 cases of Spanish sign languages, which is not a universal language and has several variations.
Kocher said this is the first time his organization has tracked languages of immigration court cases and they are looking to immigration lawyers and migrant advocates for help in identifying all the possible languages or additional cases not documented for additional studies.
“When we’re thinking about reforming or improving the immigration court system in some way, this concrete data on the number of rare-language speakers and Indigenous language speakers should be part of the conversation because we want to put numbers behind what we know immigration attorneys and judges are seeing every day. They’re seeing these cases and again having a hard time,” Kocher said.