Immigration interpreters: Show courage, or prepare to die!

December 5, 2016 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Last week many of our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States received written communication from SOSi, the government’s contractor, asking them to accept a new adhesion policy, which would require them to bid as low as possible in order to qualify for continuing sub-contractor status, as immigration court interpreters, after their current contract expires in a few weeks.

This notice, in the form of an ultimatum, required interpreters to provide their lowest possible hourly “rate” bid for the entire period of performance, and would become the sole basis for priority of case assignments in the future.  Moreover, the agency set top possible fees according to language combinations, and indicated that those bidding above said amounts would not be considered.

The maximum fees to be used as point of departure for this dive to the bottom of the barrel are insulting at best.  If you received the communication you saw the proposed maximum amounts, but for those of you who did not, it is important to be aware of the fact that these fees are way below the court interpreting fees set by the other federal courts (Article Three). The communication expressly mentions that SOSi will not honor the full-day or half-day rates policy that all other federal courts observe.  They also decided that travel expenses will be standardized with no room for negotiation, ignoring variations in cost of living, weather impact on travel, and so on. Finally, for obvious corporate reasons such as lack of candidates to be exploited at this time, and keeping up with this “serf-landlord model”, the agency gives interpreters a chance to extend their present fee conditions for a period of 45 days or until the end of January 2017.

The current Article Three federal court interpreter fees are: for a full-day of work $418.00, for the first half of the day: $226.00, for the second half of the day: $192.00, and $59.00 per hour or part thereof when the interpretation goes past 8 hours.

If you consider that the above federal court fees are for interpreters working under better conditions, such as team interpreting, access to court files for preparation, sometimes one or two cases for the day, reimbursement of travel expenses according to cost of living of the place interpreters travel to; and then you compare it to the conditions historically endured by immigration court interpreters: working solo (with bathroom breaks if you are lucky) hostile treatment in many courts, dozens of cases when interpreting Master Hearings, etc., then you come to the natural conclusion that immigration court interpreters should make the same fees as other federal court interpreters, or perhaps even more if working conditions do not improve. We cannot forget the difference in time elapsed before payment either.  As you probably guessed, immigration court interpreters have to wait longer to see their meager paychecks.

I am not going to go back to my conversations with many of you about a year ago when I warned you of future deplorable working conditions with this agency, and many of you assured me that everything was fine, that you had negotiated a better deal than ever before, and that SOSi had realized that interpreters should be treated as professionals. Well, it turns out that I was right, and that all those of you who refused to sign a contract and decided to look for other green pastures did the appropriate thing, broaden their professional horizons, and avoided having to deal with an agency that is so demeaning to all professional interpreters.

Obviously, as I said before, these posts are directed to those real professional court interpreters who are constantly improving their skills and pursuing certification (or qualification for those languages where no certification is available). I have nothing for those who refuse to pursue certification; that avoid continuing education, or argue that immigration court interpreting is so unique that no professional credential can benefit them.

But to those proud professional immigration court interpreters who view their occupation as a professional service and understand the importance of what they do, I invite you to consider this: Another year went by and SOSi continues its path to commoditization of immigration court interpreting; they moved ahead with their plan to transform you into language laborers who will blindly obey any order given without questioning. Their goal is to profit as much as possible (nothing wrong with that) by creating the illusion that they are providing a professional service while in reality delivering sub-standard interpretations without any regard for the consequences on the lives of those directly (respondents) and indirectly (American society at large) involved (this is wrong).

Dear colleagues, this is your last chance to act; by next year the monster will be too big for you.  It is clear that the agency’s goal is to get the cheapest possible “interpreter” available, and to continue to look for a cheaper one. It is also clear that they do not have enough of these language laborers at this time. Thus the reason for them to extend your current contractual terms for another 45 days or so. They need this time to find your replacement, not based in quality, but in bargain price.

As of today, without you they have to close shop. They just cannot provide the service EOIR hired them to do. Understand that you have leverage, keep in mind that by next year, with a more aggressive prosecution of immigration cases under a new White House, EOIR will surely need more interpreters than ever before. It is simple demand and supply. Today you control your destiny.

For this reason, it is important that you act, seize the moment, and protect your dignity. I invite you all to send a message loud and clear to SOSi, EOIR, and the immigration attorneys. Send your bids for a fee not lower than the federal court interpreter fee, and send it for full-day, half-day, and overtime. Tell them that reimbursement of travel expenses will be negotiated on a case by case basis, and do not sign the contract extension. Moreover, send your bids to SOSi, but copy the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), your local immigration courthouse, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Let them all know that you are professionals providing a critical service to the administration of justice.

Explain that you cannot accept the proposed conditions because of the complexity of what you do. Tell judges and lawyers that a SOSi certification is not a court interpreter certification at all; let them know that Spanish interpreters can obtain a federal court certification, that other languages can get state-level certifications, and that for those languages with no certification program, there are other options to prove your professional qualifications such as college degrees, translator certifications by the American Translators Association (ATA) or a passing grade on the translator or seminary-level interpreter exams by the U.S. Department of State (DOS).

During the last twelve months I learned how many people at EOIR were under the impression that a certification by SOSi was the same as the federal court interpreter certification. I saw the faces of many immigration attorneys when they learned that so many of the interpreters they regularly use in immigration court are not court certified, and I heard many of them telling me that, knowing now of this lack of certification, they understood why they never saw them in any other courthouse.

It would be unfortunate to learn that some of you decided to lower your head and take the extension, or bid according to their unconscionable terms. It would also be a gigantic waste of the greatest opportunity you will ever have to finally professionalize immigration court interpreting. Giving in, or giving up at this time would be the first step to your professional death. Immigration court interpreters, it is time to show courage and determination, or to prepare to die.

I now invite you to share your comments on this important topic at this crucial time.

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§ 11 Responses to Immigration interpreters: Show courage, or prepare to die!

  • Rosemary Dann says:

    Tony, I hope that the immigration interpreters listen to you. My bit of advice: You will only be a doormat if you allow people (read: agencies, big or small) to step on you. Don’t be a doormat!

  • This is a copycat move by the U.S. court authorities to emulate the Ministry of Justice in the UK which about five years ago, thanks to the new (Conservative Party) Justice Minister, Chris Grayling, decided to remove court interpreting bookings from local courts and other bodies and hand over a blanket contract to one firm for the whole country. The firm chosen was a tiny operation run by a monolingual “businessman” who had learned about the translation “industry” when he had been hired by one of the big translation companies in the UK. The contract was instantly taken over (probably even before negotiations had begun) by a very large company that had also not been involved in translation up to then, called Capita. The result was a disaster! The government had promised that the change would result in savings of nearly 25 million dollars (all of it from our pay!) in fact it must have cost the taxpayer some vast sum of money. Skilled interpreters refused to work for the new company due to the low pay rates which worked out at well below minimum wage when you took into account that travelling time was not paid. There requirement for formal qualifications was soon dropped. The standard of interpreting plummeted to say nothing of “no shows”, etc. Some defendants were kept in custody for weeks because no interpreter could be found. The government stubbornly clung to the Capita arrangement even after the contract ran out. Finally, after years of ineptitude the government has handed to contract to another firm, a larger one this time, but under the same draconian conditions for interpreters. The result will probably be even worse than before! So courage, interpreters, the initiative will FAIL and the greedy employers will find themselves interpreter-less!

    • Aisha Maniar says:

      My own feeling is that the reverse is actually true and that the UK is following the US trend… towards the militarisation of everyday life. SOSi is a military contractor that also provides interpreters to the US military in war zones for peanuts (i.e. unqualified people who’ve watched a few Hollywood films). The US immigration court privatisation contract goes back a long way and has gradually gotten worse; overall, it’s just one aspect of a very broken system – think of the privatised immigration detention facilities in Texas and elsewhere. I feel this is actually a sign for linguists in Europe/elsewhere that if we’re not careful this is where our services are heading. UK government procurements are becoming increasingly militarised too, if you check out the background of some of the larger companies who have bid for public translation/interpreting contracts in the UK. This is not a healthy trend at all, and both the interpreters and the people they interpret for lose out.

  • André Csihas, FCCI says:

    I’m sorry to see that the level of scrutiny regarding these crafty, treacherous, sneaky and insincere corporations has not yet been contained by and held to a higher standard of quality and discrimination by the upper echelon who hires them. As long as that continues, the quality of interpretation will be less than desirable at best, thus perpetuating the problem rather than creating a solution to it.

    As the well-known ad campaign from the 80’s and 90’s said: “Just Say No”.

    André Csihás, FCCI

  • Alina Salvat says:

    Good afternoon Tony. Though I am state Certified Court Interpreter (DE & PA), and will be working on obtaining Federal certification, this issue of “nickle and diming” the profession of interpreting seems to be THE universal topic in the US as far as linguistics is concerned.

    Sadly it is not only SOSI and other agencies. Some state AOC’s have also picked up this bad habit. I pray they will listen to you and stand up for themselves and the profession.

  • Dana says:

    I’m boycotting them…. Since the contract passed from the hands of Lionbridge (whose work conditions & rates were bad) to those of SoSi, it was clear that things were going to get worse so I refused to enroll and go to work for them.
    If now professionals (I’m not talking about hardly bilinguals here) did the same, we would be rid of the new monster on the block…

  • Michael Christner says:

    I am a Spanish interpreter who is soon to be state court certified (with any luck) since I just took my oral certification exam a couple weeks ago. (I live in MN but took the test in Wisconsin since that is the state where I began the certification process). I would just like to add to the overall “broken system” theme to this conversation.
    I am seeing why court interpretation is widely regarded as the most difficult form of interpreting out there, and it’s not because of the difficulty of the work of simultaneous interpretation (and other modes) per se; it’s the working conditions under which an interpreter is supposedly under obligation to perform; I am human, but given the impossible nature of working conditions in state courts and elsewhere it becomes not feasible for the professional interpreter at times.
    I feel like the court system pays “lip service” to all these high ideals and values, and then dumps them all on the interpreters’ shoulders, wipes their hands of the situation, and then does nothing to make rendering a completely accurate interpretation at all easy, or even at times possible. And then add to that the Interpreter’s Oath and Code of Ethics, and you have a situation where the interpreter is carrying WAY too much of the responsibility and BURDEN for 100% accuracy when no one else in the courtroom, or over the phone, seems to think that they have a very real role to play in order to make our Code of Ethics a legitimate possibility!

  • MPauta says:

    I’m so grateful for this article because I just received an email from SOSi and was about to accept the rate that was given to me but when I asked for mileage, parking, and toll reimbursement they said, they don’t pay it. I came across this article and SOSi definitely heard it from me. I will not accept their proposal.

  • Michael Christner says:

    Update: I passed my state court interpreter certification exam! I had been working on my skills for many years and now I just have to pass the criminal background check, as I understand it. Woo hoo! My patience and perseverance really paid off. Another confirmation of the truth that all things are possible. I never gave up hope and my efforts have been rewarded. For anyone trying to pass this exam, do what I did: find a way to study daily that is enjoyable or even fun for you. I read a quote that was important for me: Success is the result of work done in peace. Then, before I took the test I told myself: Just trust, and relax. Forcing myself to not only focus, but also to relax, was paramount for me. I think I failed a number of times in large part due to nerves… Do whatever you have to do to relax is my best advice for any test takers.

    • André Csihas, FCCI says:

      Congratulations my friend and colleague!

      I know all too well what it takes to study and to pass the court interpreter’s exams, so I congratulate you on your prowess and sincerely hope that the doors opening before you will generate a completely different perspective on your new job opportunities.

      After a seeming lifetime in the advertising and graphic design business, I had to switch to a different profession because my previous one was sinking fast. I began getting up at 0430 hrs and studied until 0630 hrs everyday for six months straight, until I finally took and passed the Federal Court Interpreter’s Exam. The reason for my monastic schedule was established because at those hours, and according to my personal logic, no person in posession of their faculties would dare call or interrupt my routine!

      So as you said: ” Just trust and relax” because you know more than you think.

      Again, congratulations: You’ll do swimmingly!

      André Csihas, FCCI

      • Michael Christner says:

        Thank you Andre! Wow, what a great study strategy in order to pass the federal court interpreter exam! Congratulations! It worked well for you.

        Thanks again Andre! I’m very excited about my burgeoning career in court interpretation!

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