U.S. Immigration Court interpreters’ other enemy.

October 18, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

About two months ago the California immigration court interpreters started a movement to force the hand of SOSi and the EOIR with the goal of achieving better work conditions, a professional pay for the services rendered, and to keep the authorities from hiring new interpreters and interpretation students for a lower fee.  This entry will not deal with the merits or the outcome of such movement. We will talk about the elephant in the room: the big obstacle to the professionalization of the interpreting services in American immigration courts that can be changed by the interpreters themselves.

I know that this blog entry will make some uncomfortable, and I do not like to do that. Unfortunately, my life-long effort to fight for the professionalization of interpreting does not allow me to keep silent. To me, that would be equivalent to betraying my own professional standards. I write this piece with respect and with no desire to offend, knowing that by the time some of you finish reading this article, you will feel offended. I only ask you to reflect on what bothered you, and honestly acknowledge, at least to yourself, that you are not really up to save the profession (as a true profession, not as a laborer’s occupation) in the immigration court arena.

For several years now, there has been a tendency to credentialize interpreters who provide services to the public, who perform a fiduciary function.  Because of the wide variety of languages regularly spoken in the United States, and due to the millions of people who do not speak English at all, or at least good enough to go through a legal or medical process, most efforts have been applied to the certification of Spanish interpreters, by far the most popular foreign language nationwide, and finding other solutions for the other languages.

Court interpreters had an early start and developed the federal Spanish court interpreter certification exam. Many States followed and the States’ Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification was born, later taking us to the current Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC).

Healthcare interpreters followed suit and developed two different interpreter certification programs (the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters: CCHI, and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters’ CMI program) both of them widely spread and recognized throughout the United States. Granted, the term “medical interpreter” to describe the functions of these professionals is less accurate that “healthcare interpreter”, and compared to the court interpreter certification federal and state-level exams, both healthcare certifications are way behind in content and degree of difficulty; but unlike court interpreter certification programs, healthcare interpreters have achieved something extremely valuable that court interpreters can only dream of: an examination administered by an independent entity, just like lawyers and physicians, instead of the uncomfortable government-run court interpreter programs that always raise the issue of the real conflict of interests when the entity certifying interpreters is the same one who hires them.

At any rate, healthcare interpreters in the United States now have a way to prove that they are minimally qualified to do their job, that they adhere to a code of ethics, and that they comply with continuing education requirements that will keep them current in language, interpreting, terminology, and medical issues. In other words, healthcare interpreters sitting at the table with court interpreters can now bring up their credential and feel at the same professional level than their legal colleagues, instead of having to give a speech about how certifications do not mean a thing, that it is working in the trenches that makes you a good interpreter, and that your field is so unique that no existing certification exam could test what is needed to work in that field.

Well, dear friends and colleagues, this takes me straight to a very real, and somewhat uncomfortable problem, faced everyday by immigration court interpreters in the United Stets: They have no certification program requirement to work in court, and for that reason, there is no way to prove a certain minimum level, thus allowing bad interpreters to work in the immigration court system for years.

Court interpreting is a highly skilled occupation that requires of a professional provider. By its nature, it is also a fiduciary function where a judge, attorneys, respondents and witnesses must trust the knowledge and skill of the interpreter who will speak throughout the proceedings while at least half of those present will not understand a word of what was said. It is an awesome responsibility that cannot be left to the paraprofessional or the untested.

Presently, all Article Three courts in the United States, at all levels (federal and state) have a Spanish language court interpreter certification program that includes minimum requirements to take the exam, passing a comprehensive and difficult test (at least at the federal level), observing a code of ethics, and (with the exception of the federal program) complying with continuing education in the legal, interpreting, and language fields to be able to keep the certification. These courts are part of the Judiciary Branch of government.

Immigration Courts are not a part of the Judiciary. They are in the Executive Branch of government and are referred to as Article One courts because of their legal basis in the U.S. Constitution. The thing is, my colleagues, these courts deal with societal, family, and personal values and interests as important as those heard by Article Three judges. They are courts of law that abide by a set of substantive and adjective laws.  For practical reasons, they operate just like any judicial court: there is a judge, there are parties (one of them will be the government just like in criminal law), there are witnesses, and there are attorneys.  Although the controversies are different, immigration proceedings also include a first appearance, motions hearings, a court trial, and a verdict. There is a burden of proof, rules of evidence and procedure, and the possibility of an appeal to a higher court (Board of Immigration Appeals). The fact that the terminology calls these hearings “master calendar”, “bond redetermination”, “credible fear”, or “individual hearing” does not make much difference.   The cases are as different from those interpreted in an Article Three courtroom, as a criminal case differs from a civil or a family law proceeding.

The skills required to interpret are the same as in any other type of court proceeding: There is a need for simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, as well as sight translation. Interpreters use equipment just the same (in fact, in many cases even the same brand), and the expected ethical and professional conduct of the interpreter is the same.

It is a fact that immigration court interpreters are disrespected by their client: the EOIR on a daily basis. There is no denial that they make little money, work long hours, and they do it solo, regardless of the complexity or duration of a hearing. It is also well-known that they are treated in humiliating fashion by being forced to jump through many administrative hoops that no other court interpreter will ever face, in part because they are subcontracted by a multinational agency that tries to keep control over the interpreters without physically being at the courthouse, but also in part because interpreters are not considered professionals, they are not acknowledged as officers of the court.

I firmly believe that the only way to earn the credibility they need so much, Spanish language (for now, and ideally all widely used language combinations later) immigration court interpreters in the United States must demand a court interpreter certification requirement to be able to work.  They need it for their credibility among their peers and with the public opinion.  Once they have a credential, together with a code of ethics and continuing education requirements, they will be in a much better position to negotiate with anybody.

Because immigration court is a federal matter, and the services provided by the interpreter are the same as the ones in all federal courts, I think that the certification they need to have is the already existing FCICE. It would be very simple, all they need to do is convince the EOIR of this need. The exam already exists, all these interpreters would need to do is register and take the test. Then, if both, EOIR and the immigration interpreter community think it is appropriate, there could be a short immigration terminology exam (although I don’t think it necessary just like current certified court interpreters do not need to test every time they interpret a different kind of hearing. Part of an interpreter’s duty is to get ready for an assignment and that professional obligation should be enough).  This would be the best way to demonstrate that their simultaneous, consecutive, and sight skills are at a minimum level to deserve that trust we discussed above. In fact, by getting EOIR to agree, immigration interpreters would have until the Summer of 2018 to take and pass the written portion of the federal exam, and then until the Summer of 2019 to take and pass the oral test. In the meantime, it could be agreed that those currently working would continue to do so until the Summer of 2018.

This solution would immediate put immigration court interpreters at the same negotiating level as their Article Three federal counterparts; In fact, it would benefit everyone: Currently federally certified Spanish court interpreters would consider working in immigration court as the pay would be the same (or almost), and newly federally certified immigration court interpreters would have the opportunity to broaden their professional horizons and work in federal courts.

Of course, this means that two things must happen: First, the certification exam cannot be a “Mickey Mouse test” like the ones offered to immigration court interpreters by multinational agency contractors; they have no scientific value and a very poor reputation. And second, immigration court interpreters need to understand that those who do not pass the exam must go, regardless of the time they have been a fixture at the immigration courthouse. Any other “solution” would defeat the purpose and discredit the credential. This, my friends, is the “other” enemy of the U.S. immigration interpreter: the bad interpreter who has never been able to pass a court certification exam, knows that they never will, and spend all their time and energy trying to convince others that certifications are worthless, exams are rigged, and that the only way to learn the profession in in the courtroom.  These people have to go away. They are like a cancer that is slowing down the progress of the rest of their colleagues.

To argue “unity” to protect and keep these individuals is misleading. Professional unity can only happen among professionals, and the individuals I just described above may be paraprofessionals but they are definitely not professional material. Imagine for one moment going to the hospital for emergency surgery and being told that the person who will operate on you has never taken or passed the Board, but has a lot of experience. Would you let this non-doctor cut you open?

I understand it is very hard to set aside our emotions and empathy for these individuals, but it is time to think of yourselves, your families and your peers. Unless you want to continue to struggle as an immigration court interpreter, you have to get certified. A decision to dodge the certification issue, or to settle for a lower standard of certification, because someone who cannot pass the test convinced you to support other options, will be a vote for the status quo, sacrificing the good ones to protect those who do not deserve to be there.

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§ 4 Responses to U.S. Immigration Court interpreters’ other enemy.

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    I agree with you, Tony: there ought to be an immigration-specific exam created strictly for and tailored to the needs and requirements of the immigration courts. The terminology is very specific and it takes a fair amount of observation, study, knowledge and practice to become a proficient immigration court interpreter. I know, because I was an immigration court interpreter for almost two years.

    The problem I see with the application of the FCICE exam to the immigration courts, is that the already-backed up cases would stack up to the rafters of the courthouse because the amount of federal-like certified interpreters would drop considerably due to the inability of many, many “interpreters” who can barely pass the state’s required exam, to actually pass the FCICE exam. It goes without saying that this in turn would create a huge vacuum in the system while enough interpreters would become certified to be immigration court interpreters.

    Additionally, the multinational agencies would more than likely have to stick to the federally approved daily rate —or very close to it— and I don’t think they’ll go for it because it eats into their profit margin: now they couldn’t get away with their low-balling mentality, but rather they’d have to pay a decent daily fee for the now, highly-qualified immigration interpreters!

    On the other hand, these agencies could be eliminated altogether and perhaps have a division of the EOIR itself grade the exams and issue the license/permit to interpret in all immigration courts throughout the United States.

    Nice thought but I think the jury’s still out on that one. Hope springs eternal, though.

    Cheers!

    André Csihas, FCCI

  • Kathleen Morris says:

    Tony makes many excellent points and suggestions in his blog. I,for one, am very happy to see him continue to tackle the unprofessional treatment that is often accorded to EOIR interpreters. I also like his suggestion that the FCICE exam be used as an acceptable benchmark to establish basic competency in EOIR courts.

    I also think that state certification exams that include a written and an oral component, are an acceptable benchmark. I do not agree, however, that SOSi would volunteer to pay certified interpreters more. My experience as a former EOIR subcontractor has shown me that the pay rates you are able to negotiate for such work have little or nothing to do with one’s qualifications, certifications, or skill/experience level. They have far more to do with how skilled a negotiator you are, with or without certification. Contract negotiation, just like interpretation, is a learned skill.

    I believe that many current EOIR interpreters who do not possess certification, can and should agree with a “grace period” to become Certified, to continue working in EOIR courts. This is a very reasonable condition. There are many highly skilled and experienced EOIR interpreters out there. The next step has to be Federal or state certification, which should not be too burdensome if one already has the abilities and skills to do the job. kat2morris@yahoo.com ka

  • Thank you for an excellent article on the obstacles to professionalization. I particularly appreciated your point to the fact that the entity that certifies should not be the entity that hires. Legal interpreters need to advocate for a national certification that is developed for and by interpreters.

    I do not agree with the characterization that the medical interpreting exams are less difficult than the legal ones, and only someone who is certified by both would be able to say that, and I am one of those professionals.

    Also, most do not know that the term and brand of ‘medical interpreter’ had been well established before the new term healthcare interpreter was introduced in the field for political reasons. Having two terms has fragmented and divided the field. Are medical assistants to be called healthcare assistants now? It is similar to judiciary, legal and court interpreters. Uniting under one professional designation will aid in a more united front towards the public. Mandatory certification is the next step, but unfortunately we would need professional licensing in order for that to be enforced, and to protect the public of unlicensed individuals to practice.

  • Dear Tony,
    I always appreciate your articles. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Great point about the importance of the progress of an independent healthcare certification.
    Thanks again,

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