40 Languages Spoken Among Asylum Seekers with Pending MPP Cases

At least 40 different languages are spoken by the nearly 30,000 migrants with pending MPP cases according to case-by-case court data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. These include languages indigenous to Central America, such as Mam and K'iche', Quechua (which is spoken in regions of South America), and sign languages from Spanish-speaking parts of Latin America. Although indigenous and other rare languages make up a small number of pending MPP cases—just 337 out of 29,423—the need for language access presents unique challenges for both migrants and the Immigration Courts.

For this report, TRAC examined the language listed in the Immigration Court data for the 29,423 cases in MPP that were pending at the end of January 2021. See TRAC's previous report here. Out of these, 28,566 (97 percent) spoke Spanish and 498 (1.7 percent) spoke Portuguese. These two languages make up nearly 99 percent of all languages on record. Just 337 people—slightly more than one percent—were recorded as speaking another non-English language across Latin America and around the world. However, these comparatively small numbers of cases have received growing attention because not only do these migrants face additional barriers to applying for asylum, finding rare-language interpreters creates scheduling challenges for immigration judges[1].

Many of these rare languages appear concentrated in Guatemala. These include Mam (71 speakers), Quiché (59 speakers), Kekchi (also spelled Q'eqchi'; 40 speakers), Konjobal (25 speakers), Western Konjobal (also known as Akateko; 16 speakers), Cubulco Achi (10 speakers), Chalchiteco (7 speakers), Chuj (5 speakers), Western Jacalteco (also spelled Jakalteco; 5 speakers), Cakchiquel (also spelled Kaqchikel; 4 speakers), Chuj (3 speakers)[2].

Other native languages represented include Quechua with 8 speakers from Ecuador, although the language is also spoken in Peru and Bolivia. Mískito (6 speakers) and Garífuna (3 speakers) both are spoken in Honduras. Other languages with small numbers of speakers—such as Somali, Sudanese, and Tamil—represent national languages in countries outside the Western Hemisphere.

Importantly, the number of indigenous language speakers may be undercounted in the Immigration Court data. Previous reporting indicates that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) may assume that rare-language speakers from Spanish-speaking parts of Latin America speak Spanish[3]. Asylum seekers whose primary language is not Spanish may agree to a Spanish interpreter—or immigration judges may use Spanish interpreters—even when that is not the migrant's most fluent language.

Spanish Sign Language, which ranks 6th overall with 30 cases, is more complicated. Contrary to popular misconceptions, "sign language" is not a universal language. Similar to spoken languages, sign languages in use among Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) communities have their own linguistic histories and regional variations that may not map onto the spoken language of the region. What the courts list as Spanish Sign Language, therefore, may not necessarily represent one single language community, but many language communities.

See Appendix table below for a list of languages recorded for migrants with pending cases in the MPP program.

Does Language Influence Which Asylum Seekers Were Allowed Into the United States?

Under the Biden administration, DHS has ended MPP and begun to admit asylum seekers into the United States who were originally excluded under the "Remain in Mexico" program. To be eligible for parole, migrants in MPP were required to register through the UNHCR's Conecta website, which is available in Spanish and Portuguese (although the actual registration form is only in Spanish). This raised important questions about whether migrants who did not speak Spanish or Portuguese would face barriers to registration.

Based on TRAC's analysis of the 337 rare language speakers in MPP with pending cases in January, there does not appear to be any evidence thus far that rare language speakers were dis­pro­por­tion­ately unable to register and be paroled into the United States. A total of 70 have been permitted to enter the United States under the Biden administration, or 20.8 percent. This is higher than the average of 13.3 percent for all pending cases (which is significantly driven by the dominant category of Spanish speakers). See Table 1.

Table 1. Transfer of MPP Pending Immigration Court Cases by Language Spoken
January 31 - March 31, 2021
Language Spoken MPP Cases Pending at End of January Transferred by End of March
Cases Percent
Spanish 28,566 3,815 13.4%
Portguese 498 14 2.8%
Rare Languages* 337 70 20.8%
English 6 1 16.7%
Not Known 16 11 68.8%
Total 29,423 3,911 13.3%
* Indigenous language speakers may be undercounted in the Immigration Court data, and mistakenly recorded as Spanish speakers.

The low rate of Portuguese speakers (2.8%) paroled into the United States is consistent with TRAC's previous report which showed that just 2.6 percent of all Brazilian nationals with pending MPP cases have been allowed to transfer out of MPP thus far under the Biden administration.

Native language speakers as a whole with pending MPP cases at the end of January had a slightly higher proportion recorded as having representation (18.4%) than was true for Spanish speakers (14.7%). Even focusing just on Guatemalans, native language speakers had somewhat higher percentages (22.2%) who were allowed to come into the U.S. during February and March of 2021 than was the case for Spanish speakers (9.9%).

These data do not suggest that rare language speakers were disproportionately prevented from registering and being paroled into the United States. It was true that during the Trump years, rare language speakers with pending cases at the end of January 2021 had a slightly lower proportion (20.8%) who were allowed into the country than was true for Spanish speakers (23.5%), but even those differences were relatively slight.

Appendix Table. Languages on Record for Migrants with Pending MPP Immigration Court Cases as of January 2021
Language on Record* Pending MPP Cases Percent of Total Cases
Spanish 28,566 97.09%
Portuguese 498 1.69%
Mam 71 0.24%
Quiche 59 0.20%
Kekchi 40 0.14%
Spanish--Sign Language 30 0.10%
Konjobal 25 <0.10%
Konjobal, Western (Akateko) 16 <0.10%
Cubulco Achi 10 <0.10%
Ixil 9 <0.10%
Sranan Tongo 9 <0.10%
Quechua 8 <0.10%
Chalchiteco 7 <0.10%
Miskito 6 <0.10%
Chuj, San Sebastian Coatan 5 <0.10%
Jacalteco, Western (Popti) 5 <0.10%
Cakchiquel 4 <0.10%
Sri Lankan Malay 4 <0.10%
Chuj, San Mateo Ixtatan 3 <0.10%
Garifuna 3 <0.10%
Quichua, Canar Highland 2 <0.10%
Quichua, Chimborazo Highland 2 <0.10%
Rabinal - Achi 2 <0.10%
Saamia 2 <0.10%
Akum 1 <0.10%
Albanian 1 <0.10%
Georgian - Soviet Republic 1 <0.10%
Gourmanchema 1 <0.10%
Nepali 1 <0.10%
Plautdietsch 1 <0.10%
Palauan 1 <0.10%
Poqomchi 1 <0.10%
Pushtu 1 <0.10%
Sipakapense 1 <0.10%
Sign Language--American 1 <0.10%
Somali 1 <0.10%
Sotho 1 <0.10%
Sudanese 1 <0.10%
Tamil 1 <0.10%
Not Recorded 10 <0.10%
Unknown Language 6 <0.10%
English 6 <0.10%
Total 29,423 100%
* TRAC uses the spelling conventions listed in the EOIR's data but acknowledges that other spelling conventions exist.


[1] Medina, J. (2019). Anyone Speak K'iche' or Mam? Immigration Courts Overwhelmed by Indigenous Languages. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/19/us/translators-border-wall-immigration.html. At MPP hearing locations, according to TRAC's analysis, Guatemalans speaking native languages had an unusually high proportion (59%) of pending cases as of the end of January 2021, compared with those who were recorded as speaking Spanish (30%).

[2] For this report, TRAC relied primarily on the language names as listed in the government's data, and supplemented these language names where possible with additional spellings available through online linguistic resources such as Ethnologue.com. Readers should not interpret these spellings as authoritative or exhaustive.

[3] Nolan, R. (2019). A Translation Crisis at the Border. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/01/06/a-translation-crisis-at-the-border.

TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact trac@syr.edu or call 315-443-3563.