For some of the many migrant children from Central America streaming across the U.S. border in recent months, Sheba Velasco is a comforting voice at the other end of a phone line.
That’s because she’s the only one in the U.S. who can speak to them in their own language. Velasco is from Guatemala and speaks Ixil, a Mayan language spoken in the country’s highlands. Fewer than 200,000 people speak it in and around her village of Nebaj.
Ixil is nothing like Spanish, she explains during an interview at her home near Washington, D.C., which means when migrants are detained at the Mexican-U.S. border, they often can’t communicate with authorities.
Her services are mostly called upon to translate Ixil to English during immigration court proceedings and lately, she’s been very busy. Last year, Velasco would get maybe one or two calls a month and now she gets two or three a week. Most of her work is by phone but she also travels to Texas, New Mexico and other states that are handling the bulk of migrants trying to get into the country.