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Indigenous language interpreters help asylum-seekers at the border

An accurate understanding of language is critical in asylum court cases. When thousands of Central American migrants, who speak rare dialects and do not know Spanish, failed to understand proceedings at the US border, activists stepped forward to rally translators.

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Odilia Romero (l.), a trilingual interpreter in English, Spanish, and her native Zapotec stands with and her friend Bricia Lopez, who started gofundme.com campaign to send Mayan interpreters to Arizona and Texas, outside her Oaxacan restaurant, La Guelaguetza in Los Angeles, on Jun. 25, 2018. Teams of people who can speak indigenous languages are helping attorneys and officials communicate with non-Spanish-speaking asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

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As word spread that the President Trump administration was separating migrant families, urgent calls went out across the internet: Interpreters were needed at the United States-Mexico border to help immigrants understand their legal cases.

But this call was not for Spanish speakers. These interpreters needed to speak the lesser-known indigenous languages of Guatemala and Mexico, including Mayan languages and Zapotec.

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Messages filled social media. An online fundraiser generated more than $12,000. Translators quickly began impromptu legal training.

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"The Interpreter Brigade is springing into action again!" Esther Navarro-Hall, of Monterey, Calif., wrote on her group's Facebook page.

Guatemalans have been the largest group of immigrants apprehended at the Mexico border this year, with almost 29,300 families arrested from Oct. 1 to May 31, according to the US Border Patrol. Many of them are not fluent in Spanish and instead speak Mayan languages known as K'iche' and Mam.

As families were separated and children were put into government shelters, indigenous language speakers had few options to communicate.

Ms. Navarro-Hall is organizing interpreters to help attorneys communicate with non-Spanish-speaking indigenous children and their detained parents to ensure their legal and medical needs are met and that they understand immigration proceedings.

"Everyone has the human right to understand any legal process against them in their own language," said Odilia Romero, a trilingual interpreter who is working with Navarro-Hall. She speaks English, Spanish, and her native Zapotec spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Ms. Romero recruited her friend Bricia Lopez, of the popular Guelaguetza restaurant in Los Angeles, to launch a gofundme.com campaign that raised the money to send Mayan interpreters to Arizona and Texas.

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The original plan was to send six speakers of Mayan languages, but that number grew to 20, Romero said. She said she expects them to be on the ground on the border in the next few days or weeks.

Although indigenous languages are far less common than Spanish, they are still used by hundreds of thousands of people. The most widely used of Guatemala's Mayan languages, K'iche', is spoken by more 1.2 million people, according to that country's last official government estimate from 2002.

Navarro-Hall started her Interpreter Brigade to organize Spanish speakers to help victims of the deadly earthquake last September in Mexico City. To work with separated families, she's teamed up with a Fresno-based group of indigenous interpreters that Romero leads, the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations.

Los Angeles immigration attorney Robert Foss provides the legal component of training sessions Romero and Navarro-Hall are organizing. He said he worries about children who may be disciplined or not get needed medical care because they cannot communicate in Spanish.

An accurate rendering of an indigenous person's words can be critical in asylum cases, said Mr. Foss, who said he speaks rudimentary K'iche' and has handled asylum cases for Central Americans since the 1990s.

"If you cannot articulate well enough what happened to you, the court will probably find that you did not establish a motive, or a nexus, for your asylum," Foss said. Having an interpreter is essential "for due process, for a full and fair hearing."

Judy Jenner, spokeswoman for the American Translators Association , said it's important that interpreters be professionally trained, not just fluent speakers of K'iche' or other languages.

"Just because you have two hands doesn't mean you can play the piano," she said. She also noted that interpretation is for the spoken word and translation for the written.

Ms. Jenner and Romero both said relay interpretation, using a third person to provide the Spanish-English rendering either in person or over the phone can be useful in emergencies, but should be a last resort.

"It's really like playing the telephone game. If I'm in the middle, I'm hoping that the K'iche'-Spanish interpreter is providing a good interpretation," Jenner said. "It's pretty scary."

At the Texas border with Mexico, activists who don't know indigenous languages were scrambling to find ways to communicate with a wave of Guatemalan migrant families, said Brenda Riojas, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese in Brownsville.

"In most cases, we call the [Guatemalan] Consulate to send interpreters, or we try to find volunteers working with us who know a few words and can help," she said. Ms. Riojas said some working with the migrants had picked up a few words that could facilitate basic communication, such as getting names and places of origins, and some indigenous Guatemalans had learned a little Spanish along the way.

Mesoamerican language specialists are not the only interpreters sought amid the wave of family separations.

The Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon issued a call on social media seeking speakers of Punjabi and other languages for at least 70 South Asians separated from their families and detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Sheridan, Ore., southwest of Portland.

In recent years, thousands of people from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have become part of a burgeoning immigration pipeline to the US as they travel from the other side of globe and through numerous countries, asking for political asylum when they reach the southern border with Mexico.

"The detainees have culturally specific needs that are not being met – including translation services, legal assistance and religious services," said Jai Singh, a field organizer for the Asian Pacific American Network. "Isolating them from these resources is both illegal and inhumane.... Seeking asylum is not a crime."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.