Interpreters in the Courts, or Do you Speak Q’anjob’al?

Interpreters in the Courts: The shortage of qualified interpreters in U.S. Courts is an issue of increasing concern.

Immigration Law Resource Month at the Harris County Law Library runs through the end of September. Until then, we will highlight immigration stories, issues, trends, and developments in the law. The lack of qualified interpreters in U.S. Courts is one such topic, which we address briefly in today's post. 

In recent weeks, several news outlets have reported on the growing need for qualified interpreters in U.S. Courts. Throughout the justice system, the shortage of those who are fluent in a second language is a problem of increasing concern. It is also a matter of equal rights, as those with Limited English Proficiency cannot engage with the legal system on an even footing. The consequences can be dire: a simple traffic offense may be misconstrued as a rape charge; an asylum-seeker facing death threats in her native Guatemala may be deported; or the misunderstanding of one’s Miranda rights may lead to self-incrimination and a denial of justice

The United States is one of the largest Spanish-speaking countries in the world, second only to Mexico, so the need for Spanish-language interpreters is especially great. In border states, which are common points of entry for immigrants from Central America, officials have identified another trend -- increasing numbers of immigrants who speak languages indigenous to their countries of origin. In many cases, finding translators for the regional languages of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is next to impossible, and justice cannot be served.

In 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement published a Language Access Plan, stating its commitment to serve individuals with Limited English Proficiency. Recognizing the need for interpreters who speak indigenous languages is a positive step, but actually locating third-party translators for these languages is a challenge they are still trying to meet.