English and Spanish in whispers and bellows echo through the towering federal courthouse in Las Cruces where judges churn through dockets of immigration cases day after day.
Increasingly, though, you can also hear Kanjobal, a Mayan dialect most common in Guatemala.
Lawyers and federal officials in courts along the border say they have seen a growing number of defendants in recent years who speak indigenous languages from Guatemala and beyond.
At the federal court in Las Cruces, judges have carved out a separate docket in order to line up interpreters for just these cases.
The increasingly common sound of Mayan dialects such as Kanjobal in borderlands courtrooms comes as growing numbers of Central American refugees flee violence and poverty, and President Donald Trump’s administration more aggressively pursues criminal charges against virtually anyone caught crossing into the country illegally from Mexico, even if that only amounts to a misdemeanor charge for those caught a first time.
The demand for indigenous language interpreters in turn points to a trend in migration along the southern border and to another way that the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy could strain an already busy federal court system.
“The demand for indigenous language interpreters has increased dramatically just in the last year,” says Barbara Mandel, head of the Office of the Federal Defender in Las Cruces.
While lawyers and court officials say indigenous languages have become more common over the past few years, this demand has also posed a particular challenge for courts and attorneys, which must track down interpreters for languages that may not be widely spoken.
Mandel says speakers of indigenous languages often stay behind bars awaiting hearings longer than the Spanish-speakers because they must wait longer for interpreters.
For example, she says her office represented two defendants Tuesday arrested on misdemeanor charges — one taken into custody on June 8, the other on June 11. Both spoke Kanjobal.
Mandel maintains they would have had hearings the week of the 11th if they had spoken Spanish.
Mitchell Elfers, acting clerk of the U.S. District Court for New Mexico, says finding an interpreter can cause delays when a defendant is speaking a language the court has not encountered. It can take two or three days to identify a defendant’s language and then arrange an interpreter, he says.
But Elfers says the court’s staff have been lining up interpreters for indigenous languages as such cases have become more common in the last few years and that the increase in defendants speaking Mayan dialects is not causing delays in setting hearings on a given day.
While the vast majority of defendants requiring interpreters to speak Spanish, he says, the court has carved out its own docket in Las Cruces for those requiring interpretation in languages other than Spanish.
That amounts to only a few cases a day, Elfers says.
But facilitating a hearing in a language other than Spanish can take longer, with interpreters on the telephone often based in other countries translating from an indigenous language to Spanish, which staff then translate into English.
“You’ll take two to three to four times as long to handle a matter,” he says.
Still, his staff have had to cultivate relationships with interpreters they may not have needed so often just a few years ago.
Five years ago, the languages spoken most often in immigration proceedings were what you might expect — the most common languages in the world. At the top of the list were Spanish, English, Mandarin and Russian.
But according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Mayan dialects Mam and K’iche’ now rank among the top 10, too.
More than a half-million people in Guatemala speak Mam, for example. And as many as 300,000 people in that country may only speak K’iche’.
Data has shown the number of people from Mexico entering the United States illegally has fallen but that the number of people from Guatemala apprehended at the border has increased substantially in just the last few years.
In turn, Carmelina Cadena has been particularly busy lately.
“I’ve seen a big increase in demand,” said Cadena, who runs Maya Interpreters, an agency that provides interpretation services in 14 different Mayan languages.
Cadena moved to the United States from Guatemala when she was 7 and was the de facto interpreter for her family, migrant farm workers. She later found plenty of demand for those who could speak Mayan languages.
In court, an interpreter can be a lifeline for those caught up in legal proceedings in what is to them a foreign country.
And Cadena adds, the consequences of prosecuting a person in a language they understand barely or not at all can be dire.
“People will say yes to anything,” she says, “including some things that are pretty grave.”