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Mayan Interpreters Scramble to Meet Demand 'Before the Wall Goes Up'


Since the late 1970s, Guatemalans have been crossing the border into the United States in large numbers - taking their indigenous languages with them. As Guatemalan immigration continues, paired with anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, demand for translators of America’s ancient languages is on the rise.

Carmelina Cadena wanted to be an interpreter since she was a child. At five years old she left her home country of Guatemala. Her family was fleeing extreme violence.

"My uncles, my cousins were put in a house and they were set on fire while they were still alive," Cadena says.

After a couple years in Mexico, Cadena and her family crossed into U.S. territory where they were met by Border Patrol.

"We turned ourselves into immigration and we were just there at their mercy."

Her family, unlike many Guatemalans at the time, were able to understand some Spanish. But, they mostly spoke the Mayan language Akateko. Cadena watched her mom struggle to understand court documents and proceedings as the immigration status of the family hung in the balance. She says the family could have received residency sooner if there had been an interpreter working with them.

Though it took decades, Cadena eventually did get her residency and citizenship. Her experience inspired her to found Maya Interpreters, an organization that hires speakers of 14 Mayan languages to do telephonic interpretations all over the United States, including West Texas.

Business has been good – too good. She’s struggling to meet the demand for interpreters,  which are hired by refugee resettlement programs, immigration courts and other organizations.

"As soon as January hit we noticed there was a spike and it has been incrementing little by little to at a point to where it's becoming harder and harder to have everybody."

Cadena says she attributes increased demand on the election of President Trump.

"I see it we all need to get in before the wall goes up."

Guatemalans have been immigrating to the United States for decades. When civil war violence spiked in Guatemala during the late 1970s, people fled their country in droves.

And it’s still an issue today. From 2007 to 2015, the number of Guatemalan immigrants in the U.S. increased 31 percent, while Mexican immigration decreased 6 percent (Pew Research Center, 2017).

In terms of illegal immigration, more than half of people apprehended crossing the Southwest Border last year were from Central America, a total of 222,847 (CBP). During the 2017 fiscal year, 33,570 Guatemalans were removed by ICE, second only to Mexican removals (ICE).

"We’ve seen a steady increase in the what we term as 'other than Mexicans', majority of those being Guatemalans," says Rush Carter, Border Patrol Special Operations Supervisor for the Big Bend Sector.

The sector makes up a quarter of the southwest border.

Parked on the side of highway 90 near Alpine, Carter points to a hill where agents are tracking a group they suspect are Guatemalans. Carter says they’re hard to track. To avoid leaving footprints, they wear carpet on their shoes and usually are being guided by professional smugglers, or coyotes.

When the Border Patrol does find a group, communication is crucial.

"With the Guatemalans, we do hear more of that indigenous language," says Carter, "of course our agents are all trained in Spanish, however when they hear something like that it’s a foreign language to them."

Though most Guatemalans do speak Spanish, organizations like the Border Patrol and immigration courts sometimes have to call on translation services like Cadena’s for help.

Communication is especially tricky in court, when a Guatemalan might understand some Spanish, but it's their second language. Last year, of the ten most commonly-used languages used in U.S. immigration courts, two were Mayan languages. This demand for interpreters, combined with low supply and the fact that some Mayan languages are incredibly rare, creates extra challenges for Guatemalan immigrants.

"Unfortunately, the issue of facilitating translations for Guatemalans going through the immigration system has been difficult," says Benito Juarez, of the International Mayan League. He also works for New American and Refugee Affairs for the City of Houston.

"If you don’t have language services available for somebody who is going through the immigration system, it basically makes more difficult the process and can affect the outcome, resulting in people just giving up and saying well, I’m just going back or being deported."

He says there are just three organizations nationwide that provide translation assistance for indigenous Guatemalans going through the immigration process. One is Maya Interpreters - Cadena’s company.

She says with the increase in Guatemalans coming to the U.S., she’ll be scrambling to facilitate translations. Cadena is up for the challenge - she sees it as her American duty.