August 31, 2015 § 9 Comments
For several weeks I have been contacted by many of our interpreter friends and colleagues. They have talked to me in person, over the phone, by text, by email, and through social media. The message was the same: interpreting services at the immigration courts of the United States are under siege. They explained how the contractor who will provide interpreting services at all U.S. immigration courthouses had contacted them to offer unprecedented low fees and horrifying working conditions to those who wanted to continue to interpret in these settings. I know that many of you are not in the U.S. and most of you do not work as immigration court interpreters; however, what is happening there impacts us all as a profession, and could have an effect on the way you work in your respective fields or countries.
Basically, the contract to provide interpreting services at all immigration courts in the United States was awarded to a different company than the one that provided these services for the past two decades. In the United States, these government contracts are awarded pursuant to a public bidding process, and after reviewing all bids, the government selects the bidder that better fits the criteria sought by the particular government agency. Although the required elements may differ here and there, the main factors to decide who wins usually include abatement of costs. In other words, the government looks for an entity that can deliver the required service at the minimum cost. In this case, interpreting services at the immigration courts are contracted out to the best bidder by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR)
American immigration courts are not part of the judicial branch of the federal government; they do not fall under the jurisdiction and hierarchy of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (USAOC) (Article 3 of the U.S. constitution) Instead, the immigration courts are administrative courts created by Congress. They are part of the executive branch of the federal government; in other words, they fall under the authority of the president of the United States through the Department of Justice (DOJ) and specifically under the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) (Article 1 of the U.S. constitution)
For full disclosure purposes, I must say that I do not interpret at the immigration court because I thought that the fees and working conditions offered by LionBridge, the interpreting service provider that will no longer have a contract with DOJ-EOIR in the new fiscal year (October 1) were about the most draconian, one-sided conditions I have ever seen in my professional life. I have to say that I did interpret for them in the past pursuant to an individually negotiated contract that paid me a fee higher than their average, but because of the fee I had to be paid, that in my opinion was still quite modest, I have not been asked to interpret in immigration court for years.
Going back to the “offer” extended to those colleagues who were working in immigration court under contract with LionBridge and, for what I have learned, to some interpreters whose names were found on certified interpreters’ lists elsewhere, it is clear that SOS International (SOSi) (the new contractor) has offered between $30 and $35 dollars per hour, in some cases with a two hour minimum, or $118.75 for a half-day assignment (must work 4 hours) and $188.91 for a full-day assignment (must work 8 hours) Notice that if you work 8 hours you will be making “more money” because you will be working more hours, but in reality, your hourly fee will drop to $23.61
According to those colleagues I have talked to, these fee structure has been presented to them as non-negotiable (for now).
There are many non-professional jobs that pay way better than these fees that frankly speaking, are offensive for a professional service such as that provided by the immigration court interpreters.
SOSi is currently compiling a list of interpreter names and resumes to be submitted to DOJ-EOIR for security background checks and to show that they have enough interpreters to meet the immigration courts needs. That is why so many of you have been contacted and asked to provide your information. On July 22, 2015 it was announced that SOSi had been awarded a prime contract by DOJ-EOIR for language interpreter services for a base period and four option periods extending through August 2020, with a maximum amount of $80 million dollars. In exchange, SOSi is to provide all management and supervision, labor, and supplies necessary to perform these services in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all territories (including Puerto Rico) in 59 immigration courthouses. (SOSi press release 7/22/15 Reston, VA) In my opinion, before providing our information and resume in a hurry, we should first learn who is SOSi.
SOS Interpreting, LTD is a family owned, New York-based business contractor founded in 1989 that works mainly in the defense and intelligence sectors. The total obligation amount of Sos International, LTD a 465 employee company incorporated in New York in 1992, from 2000 to the present is $217 million dollars, and its total federal contract contracts from 2000 to the present are 56 (not clear if this total includes the new DOJ-EOIR contract) mainly with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. According to USASpending.gov, just last year, they won 5 contracts worth $9.83 million dollars. (Source: www.InsideGov.com)
An audit of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) language services contract with SOS International, LTD (contract number DJDEA-05-C-0020 Dallas Field Division) in February 2012 states that: “…Therefore, we are questioning $934,144 for hours billed for linguists who worked without current language certification…” (https://oig.justice.gov/grants/2012/g6012004.pdf)
On August 2, 2015 The Daily Beast reported in their article entitled: “The Company Getting Rich Off The Isis War” that: “…SOS International, a family-owned business whose corporate headquarters are in New York City, is one of the biggest players on the ground in Iraq, employing the most Americans in the country after the U.S. Embassy. On the company’s board of advisors: former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (considered to be one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq) and Paul Butler, a former special assistant to Pentagon Chief Donald Rumsfeld…” It goes on to say that: “…the contracts (SOSi) has been awarded for work in Iraq in 2015 have a total value of more than $400 million (dollars)…” (http://www,thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/02/the-company-getting-rich-off-the-isis-war.html)
My point is, dear friends and colleagues, that even though LionBridge paid miserably low fees and offered demeaning working conditions (such as checking and fighting for the last minute of services, not covering per diem when traveling, and others) many interpreters have provided their services at the immigration courts of the United States in the past. The interpreting community at large has always considered that for the above-mentioned reasons, working as an immigration interpreter has been a second-tier occupation. It is also known that, with some exceptions all over the country, (because there are some very good interpreters working this assignments) there are many mediocre individuals attempting to provide interpreting services at the immigration courts of the United States because they met one of LionBridge’s fundamental requirements: They were willing to work for very little compensation.
It is sad that, compared to what immigration court interpreters face today, those were the “good old days”. I think that interpreters as professionals should always strive to improve their skills and service. To me, this is a unique opportunity that the market is giving to those who have been, for way too long, imprisoned in the world of complacency that working for the immigration courts has created around them. It is time to reflect and look for another horizons in the interpreting world. I can assure you that, if you provide a top service, you will find clients and assignments that you never dreamed of. You will finally make the kind of income that a professional interpreter should make, and you will never look back to the dark days.
For those who want to stay in the immigration field because of vocational reasons or because a better income is not necessarily a top priority, I would suggest that you unite and focus on the fee and working conditions issue. Do not get sidetracked with other consequences such as protecting the rights of the respondent. That is not your job, duty or battle. Let the immigration attorneys and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) (www.aila.org) fight that battle. That is their job and duty.
I invite you to communicate with each other and focus on how you are being treated. Concentrate your efforts on developing a common front and sharing what is happening with the attorneys, AILA, and those non-for-profit organizations that constantly fight for the rights of immigrants. I know that many of you are already meeting at your state or local levels, that many of you are chatting on line and creating forums and discussion groups. I hope you continue and fight with the same spirit of our friends and colleagues in the United Kingdom who walked out of the courthouses after their government awarded the interpreting services contract to an incompetent agency that decided to cut their fees, just like they are trying to do to you. Several years have passed and they have not surrendered, they have not gone back to the courts; instead, they have raised awareness about this issue among all interested parties.
I do not know what the new immigration court contractor would do if they do not have enough names and resumes by October 1, 2015 when they are due to start providing interpreting services all over the United States, but I know that it will give you an option to try to get a decent fee for your services. At this time there is much said about Donald Trump’s immigration policy and how concerning that is to many in the United States. It is a very important issue, but we should also pay attention to what the current government is doing; after all it is the Obama administration that awarded the contract to SOSi promoting by its actions this terrible situation that all immigration court interpreters are enduring right now. As for the rest of us, I believe that we should follow the developments on this issue, and help our friends and colleagues by making public everything that transpires. Do not lose sight of the fact that the contractor is getting a huge amount of money from our government, they are not poor.
Remember, this government contractor seems to be determined to take advantage of the immigration court interpreters, but in the process, they have disrespected all interpreters and our profession. I now ask you to please share this article everywhere you can, and please tell us what you think about this very serious issue.
August 17, 2015 § 2 Comments
Interpreters have to make work-related choices on a daily basis: from the word that best conveys the message in the target language, to the subject matter we are willing to interpret, to the work conditions we agree to. All decisions are very important for our professional development and lifestyle, but today I want to talk about another decision that all interpreters, especially freelancers, have to make every now and then.
We all know that the work of the interpreter goes beyond what people notice when they see us in the booth, the courtroom, boardroom, or hospital. We have to set aside time to study, prepare for an event, travel, and perform administrative duties. Most people do not see us while we are taking care of these activities, which are time-consuming and essential to our work. These aspects of our profession, however, allow some flexibility. Unlike real-time interpreting which needs to happen when the conference, court hearing, or business meeting take place, all other duties can be fulfilled whenever we decide to do them: weekends, nighttime, and so on. They rarely create a conflict in our work schedule.
As interpreters we all know that there is an “unwritten rule” that says that you can go without an assignment for some time, but when a very good one comes your way, another one, as good as the first one will follow shortly, often on the same dates. We can be available four days in a week, but the two good assignments will require of your services on the same three days. Most of you can relate to this dilemma, and those who cannot… just wait a few years and you will.
Deciding which one of these assignments you will have to turn down is one of the most difficult things we face as interpreters, especially when both clients are good, loyal companies or individuals who have had a long professional relationship with you. And it gets more painful when you particularly like the assignments, when you have enjoyed doing them in the past, and when they pay really well. To complicate things even more, it is common to take a job just to get another offer for one that pays even better a few minutes later. My question is: What should we do when this happens?
I recently faced this situation twice: I agreed to do a very prestigious and interesting conference and a few days later I was asked to do a sports interpreting assignment that I truly enjoy; the only problem: they were on the same dates. A few weeks later, I was already preparing for a conference when I was asked to do another event on the same dates at a beautiful beach resort.
The logical thing is to turn down the second offer, and that is exactly what I did on both occasions, but it really hurt. I agonized over these decisions not just because the second assignment was something I love to do in the first case, or because it was in a place I enjoy visiting in the second case. The decision was complicated because these were all good clients who count on me for these events. The concern of losing the client was more important than missing the assignment.
There are times when you have to take the risk of upsetting the client, even after you do everything you can to explain the reasons why you cannot say yes to the job, but you can do certain things to minimize the damage and to keep the client whose assignment you are turning down: My rule is that when this happens, I talk to the client who requested my services second, I explain to them that it is not personal, that I truly enjoy working with them, and that I will be there for them when the next one comes around. I offer to help in every way I can, short of interpreting, to make sure they have a successful event. I even refer them to some trusted capable colleagues who I know will do a great job and will not try to “steal” the client. Depending on the circumstances, I may even provide the interpreters who will subcontract with me. All these points are explained to the client, and they usually agree.
However, there are times when after assessing the two assignments, I opt for the second event, and do the same I explained above, but for the first, original client. I rarely do this, but I do it when the subject matter, location of the assignments, and other factors lead me to believe that both clients will be better served if I physically work the second event. Many times the original client agrees, the services are top notch at both assignments, and I get to keep both clients happy. Of course, I would not even dare to attempt this option with a client I know may get upset or feel abandoned by me if I were to propose different interpreters after I already told them I would personally do the job. You need to know your clients very well before you do something like this.
In those cases when neither client agrees to a “Plan B”, and they both demand that I physically interpret the event, I had to make the always tough choice of deciding which client I rather keep. If I concluded that the second client was more valuable to me in the long run, I have graciously declined the first assignment, provided that I was not exposing myself to civil liability, and never doing it at the very last minute. That is the life of a freelancer.
Years ago, when I did more court interpreting, I would sometimes double-book myself in cases when I knew that the chances of a case going to trial were very slim. I would let the second client know that there was a small chance that I would not do the job myself because of that potential trial, and that if that happened, I would provide other trusted and capable professional interpreters to cover the event for me. As those of you who regularly work in court know, the trial almost never happened, and I did not lose work. The courthouse did not need to know because my commitment to the trial was absolute; in other words, if there was a trial, I would be there, no question about it. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your thoughts and experiences when presented with this situation, and please tell us how you dealt with this problem.
July 15, 2015 § 11 Comments
Being a freelancer has many benefits but it also puts us in situations where we have to exercise our judgement and make decisions that will not always be easy. During my many years as a professional interpreter sometimes I have faced choices that required of an exhaustive analytical process in order to decide if I take an assignment or not. To get to the point where I am comfortable with my decision, I usually look at the prospective job from a professional perspective, a business point of view, and a moral (therefore subjective) position.
I try to determine if I am professionally able to provide the service I am expected to deliver: Do I have the knowledge and skill necessary to do a good job? Do I have time to research and prepare in the event the subject matter is unique or different from what I normally do?
If the answer is yes, I assess the business pros and cons of taking the assignment: Will it hurt my business or will it enhance it?
Finally, I go through a self-reflection to determine if I will feel comfortable with the subject matter that needs my interpreting services.
I had to go through this process when a few days ago I decided to provide my interpreting services for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant in the United States.
I understand that many of my colleagues would have turned the assignment down because of the controversy associated with one of the owners of the pageant and the statements he recently made regarding Hispanics, in particular Mexicans, who come across the border without legal documents to do so. After a long and thorough reflection, I decided to go ahead and provide the service because I concluded that it was not contrary to the standards that I described above.
From the professional perspective I concluded that, despite the opinions expressed by Donald Trump about Mexicans and others who enter the United States illegally, this should not impact my ability to do a good job. I know that many of my colleagues in the United States would have turned the assignment down, and some of you expressed your opinion against my taking on the assignment. I respect the opinions of others, but I disagree with their posture because it goes against what we do as interpreters. When questioned by some of you, my answer was that most of those objecting to the assignment systematically provide interpreting services to individuals who are not exactly the pillars of our society. On a daily basis, court interpreters bridge the language barrier between the courts and the defendants charged with horrible crimes such as murder, rape, and child molestation. They provide the service without hesitation because they know and understand that despite the crime, and the criminal, interpreting services are required to deliver justice in our system. The higher value of the job has very little to do with the charge or the perpetrator. As for those colleagues who do not work in court, I cannot help but picture those assignments where the interpreter works in a conference or a business meeting where the subject matter has to do with issues that are distasteful, controversial, or opposed by a significant segment of the population, such as gun control, military operations, or unpopular business practices. These interpreters go into the booth and do their best because they recognize that this is the essence of our profession, not because they endorse the philosophy of those they are interpreting for. We all know that these are not our ideas; that we do not have to like the message nor the messenger. We have a job to do, and we do it to the best of our ability.
As a freelancer, it is extremely important to make the right business decision when you agree to do an assignment. To assess the situation, we have to separate the pure business aspect of the situation from all other factors that could cloud our view. I understand why so many business entities decided to distance themselves from the pageant. For them it was the right choice: they deal directly with the groups that were offended by Trump’s statements. They are their consumers. The fact that Univision, NBC, and even Chef José Andrés broke up with the Trump emporium makes business sense. They could not risk losing so many consumers, or having people protesting outside their site of business. I agree with what they did. On the other hand, as an interpreter, I do not deal with Spanish-speaking people as my direct clients. They are the recipients of a service that I provide at the request of my direct client: the agency, event organizer, law office, court system, or international organization. For a decision to impact my business, it has to hurt my client. In this case, taking the job benefited my business. I acted professionally and did not abandon a client when I was needed the most. This will, no doubt, benefit me for a long time. My clients know that it takes a lot for me to go back on a contractual obligation to perform a service. I guess that if part of my business depended on working directly with the Spanish speaking community or with organizations that decided to oppose Trump, I would have probably decided differently, but in my situation this was not the case.
Before I decided what to do, I considered the moral aspects of my decision. To do this, I carefully separated two things that should never be grouped as one: What Donald Trump, the politician running for president of the United States said, and what the pageant is and represents to many who had worked for months and years for the success of the event. Although I disagree with Trump’s statements, and I believe that he should have never generalized his opinions, I also understand that, to a degree, they were taken out of context. It is false that all those who come to the United States are rapists and drug dealers, but it is also undeniable, as my court interpreter colleagues perfectly know, that a good number of those undocumented individuals commit crimes every day. Donald Trump’s remarks made me angry, but the reaction by the corrupt governments of Mexico and other Latin American countries also made me mad. They should be ashamed of themselves, because it is them who push their citizens across the border. They have no right to be offended. They are destroying their people. On the other hand, interpreting for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant does not mean interpreting for Donald Trump. Those of us who participated in the event interpreted for the presenters and contestants who had nothing to do with a statement by a politician who is only part-owner of the pageant and was quoted, at least partially, out of context. I could find no valid moral reason, for me, not to take the assignment and fulfill my contract.
I am only trying to point out that as interpreters, we provide our services to many people. Sometimes we are the “voice” of a revered and admired individual, on other occasions we give the sound of our voice to despicable vile characters. Many times we interpret events that are in agreement with our way of thinking, many others we interpret topics that we dislike and even disagree with.
I am not saying that we should accept every single assignment that comes our way. All I am saying is that we should analyze the proposed event, and only reject it when professionally, from the business perspective, or morally (as a very personal thing) we conclude that it is the right thing to do. I know that not all assignments are for all interpreters and I respect that. I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for child molesters; I have colleagues who will not interpret conferences that go against their political or religious beliefs (pro-choice, pro-life, gun control, free trade, etc.) There are gigs that I would surely turn down as well. I do not see myself interpreting for the Nation of Islam or for Nambla for example. However, I believe in assessing all aspects of an assignment before making a decision. We have to remember that this is part of our profession; that we are not the ones speaking and saying those awful things, and we cannot lose sight of the fact that this profession is also a business, and for that reason, we should decide like businesspeople. I now invite you to share with the rest of us the elements that you consider before rejecting an assignment, and please, abstain from political comments and editorializing about Donald Trump. This post is not about what he said; we all agree that it was wrong. It is about what we have to do as professional businesspeople in the interpreting profession when faced with a controversial situation.
June 23, 2015 § 15 Comments
It seems like every time I open my mailbox, see a tweet, or read a professional publication, I see new advertisement for all these interpreter courses, interpreter certifications, interpreter great opportunities, and so on. There are many government entities, multinational agencies, professional associations, and “professional trainers” who have discovered a new business: create interpreters from nothing!
Let’s see: Just a few years ago Spanish language court interpreters in the United States could only be certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts (federal) or by the Administrative Office of the Courts of a state member of what was called the consortium. These credentials were widely known and recognized. Everybody knew what was behind them: a federal certification was more than a state-level certification, and then… there were the non-certified individuals who were precluded from working in the court system, and in those cases when they were used by the government, they were ushered in through the back door because they all knew that they were doing something that should be kept “confidential”.
Well, the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act became a reality for all state courts so the Consortium was no more, it has now been replaced by the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC) and now, in order to keep those federal funds coming, the states have devised a clever plan to circumvent the court certification requirement which would be the thing to do according to law, but very expensive, so they have created this new “category” of people who cannot pass the certification test, but are allowed to work in court, entering through the front door, called “qualified”, “conditionally qualified” and other versions of the same thing: an unqualified individual doing a job that is federally mandated and requires of certification. Yes, it is easier, and cheaper, to mass produce these individuals who, in my opinion, are trained to do a job that does not exist, and pays lower than a professional certified interpreter would work for. These individuals are now produced in “programs” developed by some states with the help of opportunist community colleges and “professional trainers” who see fit to create a program and go through the motions in order to deliver these paraprofessionals.
But this was not enough. The developments above showed the way to another lucrative business: the development of another category of interpreter who would be called “community interpreter” but would provide services in legal arenas where the court proceedings are of Article One of the U.S. Constitution: Administrative Courts. The reason for this new category, according to those who are now benefiting from its implementation: To fill in the gap in the legal system that was not been serviced by certified court interpreters. The real motivation: That these courts and their proceedings are not covered by the court interpreter legislation, so there was a great opportunity for agencies to jump in, “certify” their people, and cover the hearings while paying these para-interpreters very little money. Again, the “certification” programs (sometimes called “diploma” programs) have been developed by individuals who saw the opportunity to make money. There is no official oversight nor legal authority for the existence of these “community interpreters”. The only thing that is clear is that court proceedings in administrative courts are as important and complex as the ones heard in Article 3 courts. This is why, to be able to appear before administrative law judges, attorneys have to pass the same bar exam and be members in good standing of their state bar. No lesser requirements for attorneys, but non-existent requirements for interpreters. Obviously, there is a lot of money to be made in a service where the interpreter pay is so bad that no real self-respecting interpreter would get involved.
Then we have the professional associations and multinational agencies that offer their own “certifications” “qualifications” or whatever they chose to call them, to those left-overs who cannot work anywhere else and have to settle for a quick course online, a 15-minute exam online, and a dismal pay in exchange for telephonic or live interpreting at medical offices, school classrooms, community meetings, and the likes. I do not blame those who are providing what in my opinion are questionable services, they are taking advantage of a void in the legal system and a weak group of interpreters who do not fight for their profession, reputation, betterment, and income. The blame is on the authorities who chose not to fix the situation and foster the spread of these “interpreter factories” all over; on the ignorant clients who buy the Brooklyn Bridge every time the agency sells it to them, and on the self-respect and ambition lacking so-called interpreters who enable the system to continue, instead of studying to better themselves as real conference, court, healthcare, or community interpreters.
We as professional interpreters need to protect our profession, we need to watch over our future, and we need to stop this do-nothing attitude and stand up, educate our clients, better ourselves, join real professional associations that work for the interpreters and not against them, and embracing the new technology, explain to the client that, compared to those I mentioned above, we represent quality, and many times savings, as we work without the middle man, the only actor who is not necessary in this play. There are some good agencies, trainers, and professional associations out there, unfortunately, most of them become known to the interpreters once they reach certain level within the profession. It is our job, and responsibility, to point the new colleagues in the right direction. Please feel free to share your comments with the rest of us, but please abstain from coming here to defend the entities I wrote about. They have plenty of forums where to make their case.