Interpreting at the Immigration Court: Is it really headed for disaster?

February 4, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last year a colleague contacted me asking for advice.  She works as an independent contractor interpreter with the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) in the United States. This government agency is better known as the immigration court.  Before I get into the subject matter of this article, let me say a few things that we need to consider as the background of the situation I will describe on the next paragraph: (1) The immigration court is an administrative court. It is not part of the federal judiciary like district court or the court of appeals. It has no link to the U.S. Supreme Court. Its link is to the President of the United States through the Department of Justice. Its judges are administrative law judges appointed by the executive branch. They do not have life tenure nor need to be approved by the Senate as judicial branch judges do. (2) Immigration courts do not hear criminal cases. All cases are civil. Any criminal violation of the immigration laws (illegal reentry, alien smuggling, etc.) are heard by federal district court judges, not immigration judges. (3) There is no constitutional right to an attorney in immigration proceedings because immigration violations are not criminal in nature. For this reason the person accused of the violation is called the respondent and not the defendant. (4) All interpretation services in immigration court are provided by in-house staff interpreters who work for the EOIR, or by an interpretation agency that has a nationwide exclusive contract with the EOIR. This agency’s schedulers assign cases to the independent contractors on their lists, the independent interpreters submit their invoices to this agency, and the agency pays them, not the EOIR. (5) I know many interpreters and agency schedulers who work and have worked in immigration court.  Some of these interpreters, staff, agency supervisors are my friends, and every now and then I have interpreted in immigration court in many parts of the United States as an independent contractor.

It turns out that according to my colleague, by October 1 of last year, the beginning of the federal fiscal year, all immigration proceedings were supposed to be interpreted simultaneously using interpretation equipment. Until now most immigration hearings have been interpreted consecutively without equipment, and the interpretation has been done selectively, meaning that not everything has been interpreted to the respondent. Basically, the only parts of the hearing that are interpreted to the respondent are those when the judge and attorneys address him directly.  I know that by now you are thinking that simultaneous interpretation of the full proceeding is how court interpretation is done every day not just at the federal level, but at the state and local level as well. So, what is the big deal? The difference is that in immigration court, until now, they have been hiring many people who have never interpreted simultaneously.  Moreover, my colleague told me that this simultaneous interpretation was going to be conducted by a single interpreter regardless of the duration of the hearing. No team interpreting under any circumstances.  She also told me that they had contacted the agency but nothing good had come from that communication, except that they were told that they could learn simultaneous interpretation from an on-line tutorial the agency had posted on its “contractors-only” website and that if they ever needed a break they could ask the judge for a recess.  Once she explained their predicament, I thought of a possible solution to the problem.

I must say that between the time I spoke with my colleague and now, and (I believe) mainly because of the pressure applied by most reputable interpreter organizations in the United States, lead by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) The EOIR and the translation agency that hires the independent contractor interpreters have decided not to implement simultaneous interpretation at this time.

I have nothing against the agency that has the contract to provide interpretation services for the EOIR. In fact, I respect what they do: As a business, they are doing exactly what they have to do to profit for their shareholders while at the same time fulfilling the terms of their contract. Also, like I said, I know many interpreters who work in immigration court and some of them are good interpreters, and many more are dedicated and hard-working people; However, the reality is that when many interpreters think of immigration court the first thing that comes to mind is that it is in the hands of an agency that pays very little, demands minimum quality from its interpreters, takes a long time to pay, cancels assignments, and hires many of those interpreters who were not able to work anywhere else.

I have worked in immigration court in different parts of the country and unfortunately, in some ways, this idea is not far from the truth. The agency got this contract, by far the largest interpretation contract with the federal government, bidding a low-cost interpretation service and guaranteeing coverage in all required languages, even the most exotic ones. To fulfill this obligation they developed a program that encompasses a very good business model where they recruit people locally, subject them to a very basic interpretation test, run a security and work-eligibility background check, and provide some entry-level materials on-line. They also hire hard-working administrative staff that rounds up the interpreters at the local level as they are needed and schedules them. The agency has a group of independent contractors, most of them drawn from the same interpreter recruitment system, who have separated themselves from the rest and, after a basic training by the agency, have been willing to become quality-control supervisors of their peers at the local level. Finally, the program includes an interpreter payment system that is lower and less flexible than everything else in the market: No cancelation fees, no parking reimbursement, for many interpreters there is no minimum or a negligible minimum guarantee, a punch-clock system to pay the interpreter, penalties for not having the payment form stamped at the time required (even if the interpreter was already in the facility) and others.  Of course, the EOIR loved the system as a warm body is always standing next to the respondent, the contractor interpreter conveys the basic information to the alien, and the budgetary cost is very low (although I could not find out how much the EOIR pays the agency for each case interpreted.)

It is very difficult to hire so many interpreters, particularly in some of the less common languages. It would definitely be very expensive for the EOIR to attempt to hire all of these interpreters at the local level using a staff interpreter or a clerk. It would also be extremely hard to provide interpretation services at a minimum quality level in some of these languages or areas of the United States.  Maybe the agency system is not the only solution but it is the best. To raise the quality of the interpretation the agency must get these interpreters to do simultaneous interpretation and has to provide the service with two interpreters working together even if it is very hard to find two interpreters to work as a team, particularly in some languages.

As I was arriving to these conclusions it hit me: The federal court system (USAOC) is fulfilling the same needs with higher quality interpretation services, it is doing it at the local level, and it is doing it without an agency as an intermediary. This means that it can be done in immigration court! Then I thought, the federal court system requires of many interpreters every day, but not as many as immigration court where practically all cases require an interpreter. How would the small town get their interpreters for those respondents who speak less common languages? The answer came to me: There are NO immigration courts in any small towns in America. They are all in the largest urban areas and the border towns. It would not be difficult to get interpreters after all. I believe that immigration courts should follow the same procedure as the federal judiciary (and for that matter almost all of the state and local court systems in the country) For the most common languages where there are plenty of interpreters, they should implement and enforce a certification system like the federal court interpreter certification examination where the potential interpreter has to take and pass a very difficult exam before he or she can work in court.  For the other languages they could follow the same criteria used by the federal judiciary to determine who is qualified to work and who is not.  By simply implementing this change, if they pay the same as the judiciary using a half a day and full day fee system, the EOIR would have all federally certified and qualified court interpreters ready to work at a level never seen before in these courts before. This would also include the team interpreting system widely known, accepted, and used at the federal level.  Those presently working through the agency would need to get certified or qualified (depending on the language pair) which means that the good ones would have a higher income and by becoming certified or qualified interpreters, they would also have access to other markets such as the federal and state court systems. Other than waiting for the contract with the interpretation agency to expire, or finding a cost-effective way for an early termination, I see no reason to continue with the intermediary system anymore, unless the agency renegotiates its contract with the EOIR and changes its protocol demanding interpreters meet the same minimum requirements needed to work in the federal court system and pays accordingly. This would probably satisfy everybody without having to get rid of any of the current players.

In the meantime, I suggest these dedicated and hard-working individuals who are presently working in immigration court, and are not certified, start working on improving their skills, getting certified, and while the problem is permanently solved, I invite them to talk directly to the EOIR, and if necessary, to take their case to the media before they have a situation similar to what happened in Great Britain when another agency took over the interpreting services. I also suggest that until the team interpreter standard is adopted, they should take as many breaks as needed when working a long hearing alone, explaining to the judge that they are requesting the break because that type of hearing should be interpreted as a team. If you work as an immigration court interpreter, carry NAJIT position papers with you and give them to judges and attorneys, become members of NAJIT, ATA, and other local professional organizations, go to the annual conferences and present your case to the rest of the interpreter community, the agency does it all the time by getting their staff to present at these conferences. By doing so, you will begin to change the interpreters’ community perception that almost nobody wants to work where you are working. I invite the rest of you to brainstorm, and avoiding postings that contain nothing but complaints, to write down your suggestions so that our immigration interpreter friends and colleagues get what they need and deserve.

Update: on February 11, 2013 EOIR Chief Judge Brian M. O’Leary issued a memo ordering the implementation of simultaneous complete interpretation of all court proceedings without team interpreting. This order will be effective on May 1, 2013.

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§ 18 Responses to Interpreting at the Immigration Court: Is it really headed for disaster?

  • Nabil Salem says:

    Thank you Tony;
    It couldn’t have been explained any better; you covered all angles. I will post my observations later.

    • Eve says:

      Tony, your comments Tony are very informative. I have been an interpreter for about 13 years. I am hired by interpreting agencies and they in turn pay me. I work with attorneys, doctors, insurance adjusters, county supervisors, IEP’s for schools and I do big conferences where my friend and do simultaneous interpreting; We help each other with the use of headsets take turns every 20 or thirty minutes which really works out fine.
      We completed a 9 month interpreting training and covered the medical and legal aspect. No. We are not certified, however we are. frequently surprised that so many interpreters have not had any professional training and they call themselves interpreters. I feel sorry for the patient or defendant that they are helping. My friend and I will be taking the CA state exam during the summer of 2014. Presently I do a lot of interpreting for the public defenders at the local jail and some patient and doctor appointments.

      • Javier says:

        Eve. I am currently taking my first interpreting course. I wanted to ask you, which kind of interpreter job pays the most? Also, is it really as flexible as they say it is? I am an actor in Los Angeles but as you know, acting is very inconsistent so I got into interpreting since I have heard that some actors do it because it is supposed to be a flexible on call type of job if you work independently. I was looking into immigration interpreter. What do you think?

  • Janeth says:

    Tony, I second Nabil–thank you! Considering that most of the immigration hearings handled are for individuals who speak Spanish, I believe that the sooner the EOIR requires Spanish interpreters to be certified by the NCSC, or by an accredited interpreters’ program, the better Lady Justice will be served and the better the world will be; having individuals who have never attended English classes interpreting for judges in the United States of America is simply unacceptable. Requiring CEUs (Continued Educational Units) will also help improve interpreters’ skills and elevate the profession of interpretation. Another thing the EOIR should do to promote fairness and justice is retain professionals qualified in the interpretation field to run their LSU.

  • Lissett Samaniego says:

    Thank you so much for posting this well explained, level-headed discussion on the topic. I can assure you, as someone who does some work through the LSP at EOIR that many, if not the majority, of Spanish interpreters are actively preparing to pass the oral portion of the State and Federal certification exams for court interpreters. I am a MIIS graduate and I choose to work at EOIR because it is a great place to hone my interpreting skills in all modes, while I continue to prepare for the requisite accreditation to work in criminal courts. If you are a recent interpreting program graduate, there are very few places that allow you to acquire the background and experience necessary to master your interpreting performance in a legal setting. One glaring angle that is missing from this discussion is, unfortunately, funding. There is no question that certified interpreters need to be used in this setting, the question is how is EOIR going to be able to pay for certified interpreter services without going broke? I know that it’s not our job to figure this out for the DOJ, but it is a key factor, and one that interpreters often overlook, to understanding the decisions EOIR makes concerning the provision of interpreting services. It behooves all interpreters working at EOIR to continue to sharpen their skills so that they can, ultimately, pass the FCICE and be able to work anywhere, not just at the EOIR. Ultimately, as independent contractors, it is the responsibility of each individual interpreter to seek out and pay for their continuing education themselves– that is one of the requirements for claiming the independent worker status with the IRS. Expecting and demanding that the LSP pay for it will get us nowhere. As an independent contractor, think of myself as a business owner. I negotiate with the LSP what is the fair market value for my services. I negotiate a cancellation fee and a payment fee. I wouldn’t be able to stay in business otherwise.

  • Financial responsibility is important, but it is not the only factor. Yes, we all need to cut corners. Yes, sometimes cheaper is the way to go, especially when it does not affect civil rights or physical well-being.

    I’m willing to buy the cheapest frozen vegetables, the cheapest socks for my child (they don’t last for more than a month anyway), etc. I’m not willing, however, to go to the cheapest bidder when it comes to medical treatment, car repair, etc. I want a doctor or auto mechanic who has experience, who knows what he/she is doing, who will give me the best advice, not just the cheapest.

    The courts, including Immigration Court, and medical providers are areas where top quality professionals are indispensable. The respondent in Immigration court has an absolute right, under the Civil Rights Act, to hear EVERYTHING that is said, just as you or I would hear, and understand, it. To look for the cheapest interpreter is to deny them this right. The results could, and often do, mean the separation of people from their families.

    The other courts have ways of “qualifying” interpreters. The immigration courts can accept the certification process the other courts already have in place, at no cost to the immigration courts, or they can make their own certification process. One way or another, all courts are responsible for ensuring that justice is applied fairly to all people, regardless of their native language.

    I recognize the fact that there are no legal or medical interpreter certification exams for many of the languages need in legal or medical settings. There are certification exams for some languages but they are only administered under certain limited conditions. Assuring quality interpretation in these languages is very difficult.

    The comments in the earlier paragraphs refer mainly to the languages that the legal and medical fields can currently test, such as Spanish, French, Arabic, etc. Interpreter certification exams do exist for these languages, especially at the state level. Most of the states in the US (43 out of 50) are members of the NCSC (National Consortium of State Courts). Court certification on one state is recognized in any of the other 42 member states. Certification in Spanish in one state, for example, is valid in all 43 states. If your state does not offer certification in your language, there may be a neighboring state that does. One Japanese interpreter I know traveled from Michigan to California to take the certification exam there because it was not available in Michigan. Many of our Spanish interpreters, on the other hand, have never bothered to take the exam, period. They may actually be good interpreters, but they should be willing to go through the certification process.

    In short, most states require auto mechanics, plumbers, electricians, physical and occupational therapists to be state-certified. Should our legal and medical interpreters do any less? Interpretation affects people’s health and freedom. Are these any less important than plumbing and electrical work?

  • I find it fascinating how Lionbridge, the 2nd in the list of The Top 100 Language Service Providers in the world. It’s a publicly held company with revenues of 427 million dollars for 2011 yet interpreters are getting the short end of the stick. Not surprisingly, in order to have the perfect business model someone needs to make less money. The investors are laughing all the way to the bank!…And here we are worrying about simultaneous vs consecutive interpreting!

  • Janeth says:

    Will someone please let us know what the initials LSP stand for?

    I am familiar with LSU [Language Services Unit], and
    NCSC [National Center for States Court–previously known as National Consortium for State Courts], but I cannot say that I am familiar with LSP.

  • Nabil Salem says:

    “Full & Complete” is back again in the front line and, according to Chief Immigration Judge O’Leary, it must be fully implemented effective May 1st. But this time with a slight variation; that is a shy mention of interpreters fatigue and breaks, not guaranteed but to be asked for, save for a guaranteed 1/2 lunch break!!!

    Again EOIR are having their way ignoring the statements made in the white papers published by the “Coalition” and others and without any consideration to setting, equipment, team interpreting, proper breaks, etc… Interpreters might as well be robots.

    Our major problem is, while those of us voicing concern are being targeted and deprived of assignments, other Immigration Court contract interpreters are accepting these conditions for the sake of additional assignments or fearing the partial or complete loss of work from the primary contractor(s).

    It is worth noting that most of the AILA members I spoke to are not very excited about this new implementation. Also, many EOIR judges have no experience with “full & complete” in other settings.

    I would like to know if the establishment of an independent body to advocate for Immigration Court Contract Interpreters will help to advance and defend this segment of the profession.

    Please let me know.

    Nabil Salem

    Note: Contract interpreters received a copy of the order dated February 11th, 2013 from the primary contractor by email on March 28th but I was not able to find it posted on EOIR’s website !

  • Janeth says:

    I am trying to understand the following posted on February 10, 2013 at 5:14 PM-

    “I can assure you, as someone who does some work through the LSP at EOIR that many, if not the majority, of Spanish interpreters are actively preparing to pass the oral portion of the State and Federal certification exams for court interpreters.”

    To my understanding, there are only a few interpreters who work directly with the immigration Courts as employees (the word out there is, once they retired (or get fired) they won’t be replaced), and then there is LioNbridge, the company with the exclusive contract to provide interpreters for the immigration Courts across the nation. Where does LSP fit in all of this? Could someone please help me understand this? I thank you in advance.

    Now, in the same message we read: “I can assure you, as someone who does some work…that many, if not the majority…are actively preparing to pass…certification exams…” With the emphasis being place on “some” here, will it be fair to say that this comment may apply more accurately to a particular region rather than the whole country?

    Let’s be clear about something–we are talking about a HUGE issue here, one that affects the lasting well-being and livelihood of interpreters all over around the United States of America–a country that is considered the greatest country in the world, as well as the livelihood of countless people from all over the globe! We must make an effort to be as clear as possible, and thus the reason for my questions.

  • Janeth says:

    Following up on the comment posted on March 28, 2013 at 11:47 PM, I’d say the following is interesting-

  • It could be heading for a disaster if no measures are taking to streamline the operation. Please take the survey so we might work on this together:

  • Barten says:

    Thanks for the information. This was very well written and helpful to understand.

  • Nabil Salem says:

    Dear Colleagues;

    Please excuse the long silence but we have been reaching out to other affected groups such as AILA (American Immigration Lawyers Association), NAIJ (National Association of Immigration Judges) and US representatives as an immigration reform act is planned to be considered by Congress after Senate passed a version addressing EOIR and immigration court interpreters.

    The full text of my presentation to the members of AILA – South Florida Chapter is now published through “The Outspoken” at WordPress. You may access it by clicking on the following link:

    Click to access aila-sf-address-nsalem-17jul13.pdf

    As promised, we are pleased to share with you the results of the survey. The survey is now closed and the responses received have been tallied. To access the document with the results, please click on this link:

    Despite some obstacles, participation vastly exceeded expectations. The overwhelming majority of those who replied indicated doubt that Immigration Court Interpreters are adequately represented. More than 70% supported the creation of a new dedicated entity and close to 80% expressed willingness to join/serve/help, etc… Most respondents have been in this profession for an average of 16 years and a large number do other interpreting work and hold certification and other degrees. This is very impressive.

    Please stay tuned for further information.
    Nabil Salem

  • Carmen Maquilon says:

    Great article.

  • Muhibullah says:

    I was interprter for the Canadian then worked closely with U.S special force after that worked with U.S army and Inernational Company as contractor now me deeply threat aside of Taliban mw would like to move forieghn country please save my life

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