Disrespecting the (immigration) interpreter

August 31, 2015 § 34 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.

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§ 34 Responses to Disrespecting the (immigration) interpreter

  • This is a very similar situation to what happened in the UK when the government decided to privatize all court interpreting services, and no longer allowed local courts to choose interpreters from the list of qualified people. Rates plummeted to rock bottom and even the formal qualification, the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting, was no longer recognized. Instead, the company that had been awarded a monopoly for the entire country allegedly set up its own testing through a university and most interpreters who took the “test” said it was a joke. The UK government had originally boasted that the new arrangement would save £18 millon, a figure plucked out of the air. In actual fact, it has probably COST an extra £18 million to the taxpayer through incompetent people pretending to be interpreters, missed court appearances, additional remands in custody because no interpreter could be found, etc. The situation is still dire but unofficially some courts are allowed to contact interpreters directly in sensitive cases. The trend is a very dangerous one, all part of the (successful) attempt to deprive freelance workers of their incomes and rights.

  • Terri shaw says:

    Thank you for the detailed description of this disturbing situation. I refused to participate for such low pay and hope
    Others do as well. They said they would do their own “certification “. An insult to us and users of the court

    • Nabil Salem says:

      Although I do not agree or support this kind of certification but, to the satisfaction and with the approval of many, Lionbridge has been applying their own similar certification with minimum requirements for the past 20 years!

  • Brian Hutchinson says:

    I was considering interpreting at immigration courts when Lionbridge had the contract. I went to observe a few hearings and was appalled. At least in the court where I was, the conditions were brutal. One interpreter for a full day of hearings, which went for hours with no break, judges speaking rapid-fire via video conference; during one pause, the interpreter rushed out to go to the bathroom, and after like 2 minutes the guard ACTUALLY WENT OUT TO THE LOBBY TO FIND HER to bring her back in for another 2 hours of non-stop solo interpreting. Some immigration interpreters have told me “well, you should ask for a break if you need it, most judges will give you one”, without taking into account the power imbalance in the courtroom (who are we to interrupt such important proceedings, we should just shut up and do our jobs like the court reporters do), or the rolled eyes of the attorneys and guards, “oh the poor interpreter needs a break. If you can’t handle it, find another line of work.” And for $35/hour? No travel time or mileage? I will stick with the courts, thanks.

    NO ONE IS BRINGING UP THE FACT THAT THESE IMMIGRATION COURTS SHOULD HAVE TEAM INTERPRETING! 30 MIN ON, 30 MIN OFF! These hearings are long and uninterrupted and with no natural breaks like trials have.

    • Nabil Salem says:

      You deserve an award for bringing up the question of “working conditions” because most of those revolting against the new terms are entangled in fees and fees only.
      Although I think the fees offered by the new contractor are ridiculously low but I would sadly state that many interpreters have been for the past few years getting similar fees from LB; some without the customary 2 hour minimum condition.
      When we revolted against Full and Complete more than 2 years ago and asked interpreters covering solo hearings not to be afraid to ask for regular breaks as needed; many ignored our call and continued to hurt their health, their pocket and the profession at large.
      Our problem has been that many considered immigration court interpreting as an entry level to this profession and compared it to an intern with some pay!
      Rather than concentrating on pay only, what we need now is to work together to bring about a reform to our profession and to make the question of working conditions, namely “team interpreting”, a part of any current and future negotiation.

  • Vinka Valdivia says:

    I managed to get a good contract with Lionbridge for Immigration Court. It was comparable to the prior Federal Court fees.
    I know many people complain about the lack of team interpreting there and it would be nice if they had ever implemented that policy. However, there were many times when I would be released in 2 hours or even less and still get the half-day fee and that is really not much different from a deposition. I feel as though the demands of immigration court allowed me to hone my skills early on and prepared me for many other challenges.
    I will not work for the abominably-low rates they ate now suggesting, however.

    • oxana says:


      “Why immigration judges get burned out is they have a high volume of cases, some on their dockets for years…”

      “Federal immigration courts are struggling to review the large backlog of cases that has reached an all-time high. As of April of this year, 445,706 immigration cases were still pending in courts across the United States – a nearly 30 percent increase from the prior fiscal year – and experts expect it to become even worse this year.

      “There is no ability of the court to keep up,” Denise Gilman, director of an immigration clinic at the University of Texas law school in Austin, Texas, told the Los Angeles Times. “We really are in a vicious cycle.”
      Apparently the perfect time to undermine your interpreter workforce vital and indispensable to the immigration courts by decimating their income and degrading their working conditions.

      The article quoted above, ironically (you just can’t make this stuff up), was linked in a tweet (August 19 https://twitter.com/sosiceo) by none other than the CEO of SOSi who in 2010 while he was still COO paid $2.495 million for a duplex co-op loft apartment in Manhattan. Monthly maintenance $2,315. http://www.coopsales.com/2010/03/23/coo-of-privately-held-dod-contractor-pays-2-45m-for-west-village-loft/

      In case he’s planning another housing upgrade, EOIR freelance interpreters must be delighted at now being given the opportunity to sacrifice part of their income to pay for it.

    • oxana says:

      The fees you managed to obtain are in part made possible by those getting paid much less either as a result of (self imagined) weaker bargaining positions or due to plain ignorance. Not alleviated by the idiotic secrecy their fellow interpreters for some reason feel compelled to impose on themselves so as to not reveal their top-secret hush hush private rates.

      “Would be nice if they had ever implemented that policy” (team interpreting) is like paratroopers saying “it would be nice if they’d equip us with parachutes.” The fact of the matter is, not even the best interpreters can sustain accuracy and completeness much beyond 30 minutes of continuous simultaneous interpreting. And that’s under ideal conditions – interpreting for a single speaker at an almost constant volume level in a sound proof booth with high end audio equipment, not sitting next to a judge engaging in rapid fire exchanges with attorneys talking over and interrupting each other using terminology and turns of phrase that probably don’t even exist in your language.

      Neither you nor I would like to sit through the embarrassment of listening to a recording of your interpreting performance after 45 consecutive minutes of that. But an attorney would be well advised, on behalf of his client, to demand that recording be played before the appeals court.

      “I feel as though the demands of immigration court allowed me to hone my skills early on and prepared me for many other challenges.” The EOIR will be delighted to hear their venue being treated as an entry level honing ground for interpreters willing to compromise the norms of their profession to “prepare themselves for other challenges” but then again they only have themselves to blame – they are complicit in pushing for the chimera of “full&complete” running roughshod over the
      well-documented limits of human cognitive endurance. And now accepting the lowest bidding contractor. Knowing full well this low bid is made possible by decimating the income and further degrading the working conditions of their interpreters.

  • weinterpret says:

    Me too, like Vinka, I manage to get a good contract with Lion Bridge for Immigration Court, comparable to certified federal court interpreters fees. Of course, I would only get assignments when they could not get interpreters who had lower fee contracts. Or if an interpreter cancelled or last minute hearings that could not be filled in by their regular interpreters.
    I have enjoyed the work tremendously, learned a lot, worked long hours with very few brakes or relief from colleagues and put up with grumpy and disrespectful judges and court personnel…I won’t miss them, but I will miss doing a good job for all the respondents that deserve the best quality of interpreting when they are begging for their lives before not always sympathetic, over-worked and racist judges.
    I have also been contacted by this company and of course, I will not be part or participate with this new SOSi company! The compensation that they are offering is insulting!

  • Maribel Pintado Espiet says:

    Tony, thank you for stating the issue so clearly. I am appalled. There is dignity in our work. We must stand united as interpreters regardless of where we work.

  • Franco Gamero says:

    Excellent analysis. Obviously after rigorous and thorough research with esperience. Lionbridge is a huge organization. I considered working in the Immigration courts at one time. Since they were totally independent, they had their own testing. They mailed you a CD and asked you to call on a certain date and be tested on the phone. The time for the response was ridiculously short. The next statement would cut off the reponse at 1/3 or 3/4. Then I received the results and comments from the test reviewer in the POOREST English I have ever seen. Grammatically and syntactically. I wrote to the general supervisor saying that I was withdrawing my application because this showed lack of seriousness and responsibility. Since money was not an issue for me, I found it more rewarding to go to INS interviews, testing, etc. where I could help directly. As a note, two gentlemen from Mexico, little or no grade school, barely literate in Spanish, knew the complete responses to ALL the questions (only 10 are asked). I drilled them before hand. They even knew the names of all the Native American nations (over 20?). I was so impressed that I did not charge them and had my picture taken with them.

  • In Italy “court interpreters” (often non qualified foreigners) are paid few Euros per hour. In many cases the trial cannot take place because of the “lack of interpreters”.
    Of course Italy is a EU member where the 2010/64/UE Directive should apply…

  • Yuya Farias says:

    I’ll definitely share this post. Thanks for such a detailed information.

  • shedevr says:

    Upper East Side 3BR will have to wait if I sign up with SOSi.

  • André Csihas says:

    Clearly, the good boys and girls at SOSi, are part of the problem that interpreters globally have had to contend with every day.

    I hate to say it, but they contribute to the ever increased cheapening of the profession and that is because ANY organization being served by them is looking at the bottom line and not the actual results. SOSi wants to make more money and the organizations don’t care for quality, as long as the ever-present budget monster is satisfied.

    I know what I’m saying because I worked for the immigration courts for almost two years with the Lionbridge® gang and it was acceptable.

    Today, I’ve migrated to other activities but my colleagues have to deal with this kind of degradation even though they’ve been superb interpreters for years. Really? Are the interpreters breaking the budget of the DOJ to the point where wannabes like SOSi can actually take over and get a cheaper rate?

    C’mon, you’ve got to be kidding!

    Unless these interpreters are willing to take a stand and tell SOSi-like agencies to take a hike, nothing is going to change and things are going to go from bad to worse!

    I’m sorry but I take umbrage at that!

    André Csihás

  • André Csihas says:

    Thank you Tony, for bringing this unfortunate situation to light, as you always do in your very enlightening and instructive website!

    I’m sticking up for my lovely colleagues who for years have delivered flawless interpretations in untold hearings without anyone thinking twice about it and now, they won’t even get mileage for going from Point A to Point B. C’mon SOSi boys and girls, really?

    Yes, immigration court interpretation is not your every day run-of the-mill work: You really have to know your terminology and have your seat belt fastened because the judges are not going to put up with anything other than the correct terminology in their court!

    As our friend Hamlet’s interpreter so well put it: “Something is rotten in the state of SOSi”

    Un abrazo (that means “a big hug” in Spanish)


  • Rebecca says:

    Thank you for this great article. My information is public. I am wondering if SOSi is submitting it for a security clearance without my permission.

  • Nabil Salem says:

    They need your SS # in order to transfer your DOJ background clearance from LB to them and I dont think they will do that without your permission.

  • […] 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 m…  […]


    Éste era un guru que tenía un discípulo que quería llegar a ¨despertarse¨, a ser un iluminado.
    Todo los días el alumno se presentaba ante el guru para aprender su lección y todos los días el guru le pegaba con un palo un buen garrotazo en el medio de la cabeza.

    Al día siguiente, el discípulo volvía y el guru le volvía a pegar con el palo en la cabeza.

    Hasta que un buen día, el alumno le quito el palo al guru y él mismo le pegó un buen garrotazo en la cabeza al guru.

    Entonces el guru le dijo: ¨Muy bien, hijo mío. Ya te has graduado. Aprendiste la lección. Puedes marcharte.¨

    Los abusos se mantienen mientras haya abusados que los permitan.

    Maribel Alonso
    Spanish Immigration (among other things) Interpreter

  • Alex L. says:

    Thanks for the heads up. I have been trying to work with SOSi for quite a while but after finding out about their incredibly low rates….no longer!!

  • Carol Palacio says:

    When I went to observe in immigration court, there were interpreters present but they would not interpret unless the litigant asserted their right to an interpreter. And no one did! There was effectively no interpreter provided for any case I observed. When I inquired as to why I was told that “these people won’t understand legalese anyway” therefore they didn’t need one. From my point of view they were being denied their right to due process.

  • jack jackson says:

    This is a very good and serious campaign. Bravo
    In any case, it is out fault that we didn’t do the same thing about LB.
    Good start. We should do this to many other agencies.

  • I have appreciated very much the information sent to me since I am a licensed interpreter. mvalenciab@aol.com

  • Sandra Mendoza says:

    I just told the company, SOSi, that my rate is $250 for the half-day and $375 for the full day, no hourly rate.

    They sent me a contract a couple of days ago, accepting my rates.

    Obviously this is only until they find people willing to work for less, but still…

  • David E. says:

    To be honest, it is the Government that is to blame more than the awarded vendor, SOSi, for this debacle. The Government’s policy is typically based on the concept of “lowest price, technically acceptable” or “best value,” meaning that as long as the vendor displays the minimal competence, the Government will award a contract based on the lowest price.

    In theory, the Government is supposed to consider/weigh “cost reasonableness,” but in practice, they rarely (if ever) do. There is a lot of downward pressure on prices in the language services industry, and it is driven by the Federal Government. Of course, vendors are going to bid what they think they need to bid in order to win the contract. That is business, plain and simple.

    Therefore, until the Government changes their stance in terms of awarding contracts based solely on price, the vendors bidding on these contracts will keep trying to under-bid each other, and that will continue to force the market down. In this case, while DOJ and SOSi both share in the blame, it is the DOJ that bears the most blame for not having done their due diligence in determining that SOSi’s bid was not reasonable given the market conditions (and they have been in the language business long enough to know), and for not dictating/allowing for better working conditions for the interpreters (those types of things are usually specified by the Government during the contract solicitation process, not the vendors bidding on the contract).

  • […] got louder, blogs spread the word and informed some not-so-well known facts about the contractor (https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/disrespecting-the-immigration-interpreter/) virtual forums were created, professional associations intervened, the media wrote about this […]

  • […] responsible for handling interpreters changed and with a new contractor came new terms. The Professional Interpreter blog characterized the new contract terms as […]

  • […] Tony Rosado is a professional interpreter. He says he does not work in immigration courts because even the old rates were unconscionably low. But now, Rosado reports in his blog: […]

  • […] Tony Rosado is a professional interpreter. He says he does not work in immigration courts because even the old rates were unconscionably low. But now, Rosado reports in his blog: […]

  • Francisca says:

    Hello. Today I received an offer from SOSi in the amount of $48 an hour with a 3 hour minimum. I promptly rejected this offer. They complained that they are struggling to find Federal interpreters willing to accept what they can “afford” to pay. Nextthey asked for my resume and Federal certification “for negotiations”. I am considering sending a copy with a watermark stating “for negotiation purposes only. Not indicative of professional contract. Not to be used for any purpose being direct negotiations with the Interpreter”.

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