U.S. immigration interpreters under siege again.

August 23, 2016 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is not common that I write a blog entry hoping to be wrong, but on this occasion I hope I am mistaken. Let me explain:

2015 was a very difficult year for our immigration court interpreters in the United States. After decades of working with the same agency, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) granted their court interpreting services contract to a new contractor that is better known for their multi-million dollar contracts with the United States Department of Defense than for their interpreting services.  This new contractor: SOSi, won the licitation process by bidding lower than anybody else, and to keep the operation profitable for their stakeholders, they attempted to hire inexperienced interpreters and pay them extremely low fees under unimaginable work conditions.

The interpreters rallied against the newcomer’s offer, united like never before, and took to the social media, traditional media, and professional associations for support. The movement became quite strong and as a result of these actions by our immigration court colleagues and their allies, SOSi was left with no choice but to offer contracts to many of the more experienced interpreters under work conditions similar to the ones they were used to with the former contractor, and in many cases with the interpreters getting better fees than before. SOSi agreed to these terms and addressed some of the main concerns that the EOIR had about the way they were to offer interpreting services nationwide by hiring some of the support staff that had previously worked for the previous contractor: LionBridge.

At the time, it looked like SOSi got it and decided to do things the right way; unfortunately, their temporary contract with the United States Department of Justice was about to expire and they had to move quickly to turn that provisional contract into a permanent contractual obligation. To achieve their goals, once that interpreters, immigration judges, and public opinion subsided, they decided to go after the interpreters once again.

During the last few days, many immigration interpreters received an email from SOSi notifying them the following changes to their policy:

“…In the coming weeks, we plan to release a competitive Request for Quote (RFQ) to anyone who is interested in continuing to work on the program…”

In other words, in a few weeks, interpreters will have to bid for work at the EOIR, and assignments will go to the lowed bid.  Is SOSi going to pay its interpreters the same rock-bottom fees they had in mind a year ago when their master plan was derailed in part by their ineptitude, but mainly because the quality interpreters refused to work for such insulting fees.

I hope I am wrong, but as I continue to read SOSi’s communication, I detect a Machiavellian cleverness I did not see last year. Let’s read another segment of the same email:

“…In the meantime, we are issuing extensions to current Independent Contractor Agreements (ICAs) at the current rates.  You will have seven days to review and execute those extensions in order to be eligible to continue working on the program past August 31, 2016….”

The way I read the paragraph, and I hope I am wrong, I get the impression that SOSi is taking away from the interpreters the argument of “contracts with rock-bottom fees” by offering its current contractors a new contract under the same professional fees (incorrectly called “rates”).  By doing this, the Defense Contractor turned interpreting service provider, if questioned by EOIR, can defend itself arguing that their individual interpreter contracts contain the same terms as the prior contract, and that the interpreters who work for a lower fee than the one in their contract, do so by voluntarily participating in the “competitive request” process in order to get more work.  Of course, we can assume (from the contractor’s own words) that there will be very few assignments for those interpreters who do not participate in the bidding process. They will probably work only when nobody else is available.

Finally, SOSi’s communication states that “…The goal of the changes is to provide the best, most cost-effective service to the DOJ…”

Of course they have to watch these costs; that is an essential part of their contract with the government. The problem is that they also need to make a profit, and the more the better.  The question is: How can you increase your profit when your client (EOIR) will not pay you more? To me, the answer seems clear:  They will pay less to the service provider (the interpreter).

I could be wrong, but I do not believe that SOSi will pass on to the EOIR the “savings” from low-bidding interpreters on a case-by-case basis. Record keeping and reporting of these individual cases would be more expensive than simply paying the contractually agreed fees.  From the email, I understand that SOSi will get the same paycheck from the government, but their profit will go up from the money they will save by paying the interpreter a miserable fee.  The United States federal budget for 2017 shows an increase on the appropriations that go to the EOIR from 420 million dollars to 428.2 million.  There were no cuts, and in my opinion, even knowing that most of the EOIR budget goes to many other priorities, it is very hard to understand why SOSi would want interpreters to provide the same services for less money. (https://www.justice.gov/jmd/file/821961/download)

Dear friends and colleagues, I sincerely hope that my appreciations are all wrong and SOSi will honor the contracts, discard the “lower-bid” system that they seem to spouse, and things continue to improve for our immigration court colleagues; but in the event that I may be totally, or even partly right, I believe our colleagues will be better served by sounding the alarm and being in a state of alert and ready to act once again. There are just too many loose ends that require not just an explanation, but a public general commitment by SOSi not to go back to last year’s unsuccessful attempt to pay less for professional interpreting services. I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this issue, and if you have solid evidence (not wishful thinking) to prove my conclusions wrong, please share them with the rest of us.

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§ 8 Responses to U.S. immigration interpreters under siege again.

  • Bill King says:

    L’union fait la force

    Bill King Court Certified & Medically Certified Interpreter Tel: 407-427-6601

  • Muhitdin says:

    We all know that rate negotiation is always tricky, at least for me. Can anybody share what daily, half day or hourly rate is for court interpreters? Thank you!

  • Competitive bidding can go either way, not necessarily down. Just as much as they can request our lowest competitive fee, we can bid and request for their best competitive reimbursement. That means that technically they are opening up the price to the market. Market conditions here in Seattle justify our fee to remain the same or to go up but not down.

    In other words, “Competitive pricing” does not necessarily mean just “lower your price.” It also includes pricing according to market conditions and their highest possible pay so that we actually agree to do this work. Their payment needs to be “competitive” as well. In my case, I will bid higher and let market conditions help them decide if they want to hire me or not.

    • Wesley Honore says:

      While we’re at it (contract/rate nogotiation), can any of you tell me why the OPI agencies, like the LLS and Cyracom won’t renegotiate or increase our rates for OPI services regardless of the amount time you’ve been with them, especially for the interpreters who interpret for their federal contracts? I Guess we need to stand for that one as well, at least those who do OPI as well. I really think it’s not fair. The cost of living is getting higher each year and I’m pretty sure these companies do raise their rates-charging their clients a little more every year or every two or 3 years.

    • Peter says:

      Technically you’re right, and if it would only work that way it’d be great; however, they would likely not agree to pay you the higher fee since you already have a contract fee established with them. If no one else was available or willing to take the job at a lower fee than the one you bid, they would simply come back to you and say you have to work for the contract fee. You cannnot ask more than you had already agreed in your contract; but you could offer to work for less. How nice it is for them! So it appears to me that this competitive bid request scheme would only work to solicit fees that are lower than the contract fees for these jobs, not the other way around sadly.

  • Sasha Spencer says:

    I hope you are wrong, but from the letter it does sound like a new attempt to cut costs at the interpreters’ expense.

  • di id says:

    If they ask for rock bottom, they should be given fees higher than usual. Wait and see what happens when the same ‘rock bottom fees bid’ comes out for surgeons, dentists, car manufacturers, scientists, artists.

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