Disrespecting the (immigration) interpreter

August 31, 2015 § 33 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

That Interpreter should not be here.

August 24, 2015 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Today I want to bring up an issue that definitely happens in the United States and perhaps (to some extent) elsewhere.  A few years ago I was working a conference in a big facility that can hold many conferences simultaneously.  During a break, I ran into a technician I have known for years. He was there working for a different event.  Over a cup of coffee we started a typical conversation, very familiar to those of you who work the conference circuit and from time to time get to see interpreters and tech support that are working another event.  From the conversation, I learned that the conference he was doing required interpretation, and the interpreters working in the Spanish booth were from another country.

According to the technician, the event organizer had brought these two interpreters from South America just for the conference.

Later on, during the lunch break, I decided to go to the other conference room to meet the South American colleagues.  I introduced myself and welcomed them to the United States. One of them told me that this was not the first time they had interpreted a conference in the United States.

More conversation revealed that these two individuals were very capable and knew the profession. I also found out the subject matter of the four-day conference and it was nothing that required of any specialized knowledge or expertise; in other words: It was the type of conference that any top-tier U.S. based conference interpreter can handle.  The only difference: These two colleagues were paid less than half of the prevailing interpreter fee in that part of the United States.  The event organizer got two good interpreters from another country for the fee of one interpreter living in the U.S. and still had money left over.  These colleagues disclosed that they had entered the United States on what they described as a visitor’s visa and that they were going to get paid back home in their own currency.

This made me quite uneasy, because, unless the interpreters were wrong and they really had a work visa, which would make their hiring more costly than retaining American colleagues, they were not supposed to work in this country.

Unfortunately, I have heard that several event organizers may be following this practice in the United States. There are other instances when foreign interpreters have been used for events in the U.S. because they have agreed to work for a lower fee. These interpreters, who many times are very good professionals, will get a paycheck bigger than what they usually get back home, but unfortunately, they could be at risk for potential violations to the United States immigration laws because they have entered the country on a visitor’s visa and they have actually worked without legal authority.  I wonder how many times event organizers tell their clients that those less expensive interpreters they are bringing from abroad may put the event’s reputation in a bad situation because of possible immigration violations.

Many of us have also heard about the very capable interpreters who live on the Mexican side of the border, and are sometimes brought to the United States to interpret events for a lower fee than a domestic colleague. We have heard how they apparently enter the country on their border crosser cards and possibly work without a permit issued by the immigration authorities.

I want to make it clear that I am not talking about the escort, conference, legal or diplomatic interpreters who come into the country to work with businesspeople, diplomats, or other dignitaries from their home country. I have no problem with that because these colleagues are coming to do a job that requires of their expertise and perhaps additional qualifications such as a security clearance, company requirements, or an established relationship with an attorney regarding a case litigated abroad.

I am not accusing anybody of violating the immigration laws of the United States either. It is possible that for some unknown reason, an agency or event organizer decided that it is more cost effective to spend money on attorney’s fees and pay for a work visa for an interpreter who will enter the country to work for less than a week, and will get paid considerably less than a United States-based interpreter. If this is happening in the country, local interpreters and their organizations should bring this up to the entity that is holding the event and to the competent authorities.  In my opinion, it is not right that capable and available local talent be bypassed to save some money, and it is even worse when there are violations of law. It is also wrong for the foreign interpreters, especially if they cannot work in the U.S. They will probably have to work even harder and longer than the local colleagues, as they will need to acquire the cultural context and local nuances that are so important for a quality and successful rendition; and they will have to do it for a low fee and a high legal risk.  I now ask you to share your opinion and comments on this issue, and I think we would like to know if other countries are facing this problem as well.

When you have to choose between 2 good clients or assignments.

August 17, 2015 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

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