Why Are Speakers of One Mayan Language More Likely to Be Granted Asylum than Speakers of Another?

By David North on December 10, 2021

Here’s an immigration puzzle related to the sub-populations of Central American migrants that no one asked me to solve — and a proposed solution anyway.

Among the people clamoring for entry at our southern border are those from Spanish-speaking nations who do not speak either Spanish or English. They are indigenous peoples, many of them Mayans, who are at a terrible linguistic disadvantage if they manage to get into the U.S.

They are neglected by all power structures and rarely discussed by immigration specialists. And there are lots of them.

Meanwhile, the federal immigration courts do note the languages spoken by asylum applicants and Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) keeps its eye on asylum cases decided along numerous variables.

Table 5 in TRAC’s recent study shows that speakers of Mam are far less likely (57 percent) to be denied asylum and other benefits than speakers of K'iche', also spelled Quiché (87 percent). Both groups are subsets of Guatemalan nationals in the U.S. immigration courts and both languages belong to the family of Mayan languages.

Are the Mam translators more talented than those of the K'iche'? Are the Mam much more likely to be abused in Guatemala than the K'iche'?

Or is it deeper than that? Maybe the Mam speakers were on the right side of some Central American civil war, while the K'iche' were on the other side, and the CIA remembers?

Or maybe among immigration judges there is a widespread but silent bias that the Mam speakers are somehow superior to those who speak K'iche'?

Now, I have never been to Central America, and to my knowledge have never met anyone on either side of this obscure linguistic divide, but I can read the internet.

Wikipedia tells me that the Mam community in the U.S. is concentrated in Oakland, Calif., and Washington, D.C. Oakland is covered by the San Francisco immigration courts and Washington by those in my hometown of Arlington, Va.

Another study of TRAC’s deals with the asylum decisions of the various local immigration courts showing (over 20 years) these patterns:

Number of
Number of
of Denials
Nation 504, 257 265,215 52.60%
San Francisco 37,331 12,770 34.20%
Arlington 16,129 7,175 44.50%

Source: CIS calculations based on TRAC data from 2001 to 2021.

So the variable of interest is probably none of those mentioned above; the immigration courts are unlikely to have pro-Mam biases. It may simply be that when the Mam come to the U.S. they wind up in the jurisdiction of immigration courts that are more pro-migrant than those of America generally.

And it is a reminder of the huge differences in denial rates among the immigration courts, and more so among the individual judges. According to the most recent tally, the lowest denial rate seems to be in New York, where it is about 23 percent, while the highest denial rate appears to be in Las Vegas, where it is 93 percent. I write “seems” because the data are not from a table, but from a figure that does not show numbers.