Mayan language survives in US, poses challenge in immigration court


us
 Mayan language survives in US, poses challenge in immigration court

    In June 2016, Lucia crossed the border with her 3-year-old daughter into Texas. Their journey from Santa Eulalia, Guatemala - on foot and by bus - took nearly a month to complete.

    For Lucia - who now lives in Champaign, Illinois and said she was fleeing an abusive relationship - it was worth it. "Aqui la vida es bien," she said, in halting, imperfect Spanish. Here life is good.

    Lucia, who asked that her last name not be used because she is living in the United States illegally and is in deportation proceedings, is one of about 550 people in the Champaign-Urbana area who speak Q'anjob'al, one of Guatemala's more than 20 indigenous Mayan languages. But with interpreters of uncommon languages like Q'anjob'al in short supply, effectively representing native speakers in immigration court can be challenging.

    "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," said Ashley Huebner, an attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, a program with the Heartland Alliance that provides legal assistance to immigrants. "So it really does impede the ability to fully represent these individuals and for these individuals to have access to protection."

    The National Immigrant Justice Center began noticing an uptick in Q'anjob'al-speaking immigrants within the last eight months. While they attend immigration court hearings in Chicago, most of them live in the Champaign-Urbana area or in southern Indiana. In immigration courts across the country, Q'anjob'al was the 17th-most popular language in 2016, up from 25th just two years before, according to statistics from the Department of Justice. Two other indigenous Mayan languages - Mam and Quiche - were the ninth- and 10th-most popular languages, respectively, last year.

    Attorneys often scramble to find interpreters to help them prepare cases before arriving in court. In one act of desperation, Hillary Richardson, a staff attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, found a radio DJ in Guatemala who agreed to translate for her client via 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.

    In interviews with law enforcement officers when they're detained and at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement check-ins, immigrants must bring their own interpreters. They often rely on their imperfect Spanish instead.

    "We'll come across kids where maybe their initial intake information was done in Spanish because they can speak enough Spanish to get through some initial questioning, but ultimately they figure out they can't go forward in Spanish, or there's just not enough Spanish there for effective representation," Richardson said.

    Relying on a friend or family member to interpret, when it's allowed, also can pose problems for immigrants trying to attain asylum. If they are fleeing domestic or sexual violence, they may not want to share their story with someone they know, particularly if it's a man, said Rebekah Niblock, a lawyer who represents Lucia and other Q'anjob'al-speaking immigrants in the Champaign-Urbana area.

    For immigration court hearings - for which the government is required to provide interpreters for defendants - Q'anjob'al interpreters are often flown in from other parts of the country. Sometimes two interpreters are required, complicating the situation further.

    Huebner said she has been in court proceedings with Q'anjob'al speakers when the court had to rely on "relay interpretation," in which one person interprets from Q'anjob'al to Spanish and another person interprets from Spanish to English. Sometimes one of them interprets by phone instead of in person, Huebner said.

    President Donald Trump has made immigration policy one of his top priorities, vowing to increase deportations and reduce border crossings. And some don't think providing interpreters should be the court's responsibility.

    "I think it's saying quite a bit that the American taxpayer has to pay for a translator, given the fact that removal proceedings are civil proceedings. They're not criminal proceedings," said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Washington-based conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. Many states, including Illinois, leave it up to the courts to determine whether interpreters are needed in civil proceedings.

    A man in a t-shirt with a large image of Jesus Christ kneels in prayer. Parishioners, many of them from Guatemala who only speak their native Mayan language of Q'anjob'al attend mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Champaign on Nov. 5, 2017, where the service is in Mayan, Spanish and English, but primarily in Mayan.Lucia, 25, was detained by ICE officials at the U.S. border in Texas when she arrived last year. Authorities released her with an immigration hearing scheduled for December 2018. She is applying for asylum with her daughter, claiming domestic abuse and fear for her life in Guatemala, according to Niblock, her attorney. If Lucia is not granted asylum in court, she will be deported. In the meantime, Lucia checks in with ICE every two or three months in Chicago, Niblock said.

    Today, many Central American immigrants - like Lucia - come to the U.S. to escape gang or domestic violence. But in the 1980s, immigrants fleeing civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador began arriving in Champaign-Urbana and seeking sanctuary in churches that agreed to protect them from deportation.

    While the close-knit community of Q'anjob'al speakers in Champaign-Urbana may not be able to assist one another in legal proceedings, they do help one another assimilate and make their way in a new country. Little by little, they've helped one another to learn English and Spanish and get jobs. Most of the Q'anjob'al-speaking immigrants in the area today work in construction or lawn service or in restaurants, where Lucia hopes to work too.

    To assist immigrants with language acquisition and to help educate the rest of the local community about their Q'anjob'al neighbors, the linguistics department at the University of Illinois has created alphabet books and posters in Q'anjob'al for classrooms and booklets with simple translations for medical words for local hospitals. The Church of St. Mary in Champaign, which was part of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, also has a weekly Q'anjob'al-language Mass.

    It's unclear whether the Q'anjob'al-speaking community in Champaign-Urbana will continue to grow under the Trump administration and whether those already there will be allowed to stay. Looking to the future, Lucia says she doesn't want to return to Guatemala. She wants to get a job and stay in Champaign.

    "Solo Champaign. Esta bien. Es bonito tambien," she said. Only Champaign. It's good here. It's beautiful too.

    coconnolly@chicagotribune.com

    Twitter @ColleenMConn

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    By: Chicago Tribune

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