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.

A very simple action by interpreters that can go a long way.

May 22, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear colleges:

A few days ago I was talking to some interpreters about the changes to the profession brought by the new global economy and technological developments. As we discussed the challenges that we now face as interpreters, it became clear that we need to stay at the edge of all technological developments and we must act and react together as a profession.  As we discussed some of our options, we came to a collective realization that we probably are not taking full advantage of the benefits of our professional organizations, especially, the largest and best known of them all: The American Translators Association (ATA)

In the last years, ATA has reached out to interpreters in several ways. As a result, we now have as many interpreters in the organization as we have translators. Unfortunately, a big difference between the two groups of members is that most interpreters are not qualified to vote, not because an impediment on the organization’s bylaws, but because most interpreters do not know how easy it is to switch your membership status to voting member.

There is a misconception that only certified translators can vote in ATA. That is false. Many interpreters qualify to upgrade their status to voting member; it can be done online, it takes about one minute, and it is for free.

Interpreters who have a federal court certification, a U.S. state court certification, those who have passed an interpreting exam with the U.S. Department of State (conference and seminar level) conference interpreters who are members of AIIC, those who have a college degree in interpreting, and some others who meet certain requirements of professional experience, can now go to ATA’s website and upgrade their membership status.  This is the link: http://www.atanet.org/membership/memb_review_online.php

Professional organizations have never been more important, relevant, and necessary. I encourage you to join them if you are not a member, and if you are an ATA member, or if you are one of those colleagues who is considering an ATA membership, I invite you to join. Those of you who are already members, please click on the link above and change your status to voting member. Remember, that is how the United States was born. If you are already a member, make sure your voice is heard and your opinion is counted.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us your experience as you change your status on line to voting member.

What we learned as interpreters in 2013.

December 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2013 is coming to an end and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2014, we can look back and assess what we learned during the past 12 months.  As interpreters our career is a constant learning experience, and from talking with many of my colleagues 2013 was no exception. I personally grew up professionally and got to appreciate our profession even more. The year that ends gave me once again the opportunity to work with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had some positive developments this year:  IAPTI held its very successful first conference in London England, Asetrad had a magnificent anniversary event in Toledo Spain, from the evidence so far it looks like the new grading system for the U.S. federal court interpreter certification worked fine, there were many opportunities for professional development, some of them very good, including several webinars in different languages and on different topics; we had some important technological advancements that made our life easier, and contrary to the pessimists’ forecast, there was plenty of work and opportunities. Of course not everything was good.  Our colleagues in the U.K. continue to fight a war against mediocrity and misdirected greed, interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards and creating questionable certification programs, and of course, we had the pseudo-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services.

During 2013 I worked with interpreters from many countries and diverse fields of expertise. I was able to learn from, and to share my knowledge and experience with many colleagues dear to me and with some new interpreters and translators.  This past year gave me the opportunity to learn many things at the professional conferences I attended, from the interpretation and translation books first published in 2013 that I read, and of course working in the booth, at the courthouse, the formal dinners, and the recording studio.

This year I had the honor to see how several of my students became federally certified court interpreters in the United States, and I had the fortune to present before conference audiences in different countries.  During the year that ends I traveled to many professional conferences and workshops, all good and beneficial.  Because of their content, and for the impact they had on me, I have to mention the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators’ (NAJIT) Annual Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, the Spanish Association of Translators, Proof-readers and Interpreters’ (ASETRAD) Conference in Toledo, Spain, the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters’ (IAPTI) Annual Conference in London, England, and the Mexican Translators Organization’s (OMT) conference in Guadalajara Mexico where I had the pleasure to attend the magnificent International Book Fair.  My only regret was that for professional obligations I had to cancel my trip to San Antonio Texas to attend the American Translators Association’s (ATA) Annual Conference.  This year that is about to end was filled with professional experiences acquired all over the world as I constantly traveled throughout the year, meeting new colleagues and catching up with good friends. Now, as I sit before my computer reminiscing and re-living all of these life-enriching experiences, I ask you to share some of your most significant professional moments during this past year.

Interpreting at the Immigration Court: Is it really headed for disaster?

February 4, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last year a colleague contacted me asking for advice.  She works as an independent contractor interpreter with the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) in the United States. This government agency is better known as the immigration court.  Before I get into the subject matter of this article, let me say a few things that we need to consider as the background of the situation I will describe on the next paragraph: (1) The immigration court is an administrative court. It is not part of the federal judiciary like district court or the court of appeals. It has no link to the U.S. Supreme Court. Its link is to the President of the United States through the Department of Justice. Its judges are administrative law judges appointed by the executive branch. They do not have life tenure nor need to be approved by the Senate as judicial branch judges do. (2) Immigration courts do not hear criminal cases. All cases are civil. Any criminal violation of the immigration laws (illegal reentry, alien smuggling, etc.) are heard by federal district court judges, not immigration judges. (3) There is no constitutional right to an attorney in immigration proceedings because immigration violations are not criminal in nature. For this reason the person accused of the violation is called the respondent and not the defendant. (4) All interpretation services in immigration court are provided by in-house staff interpreters who work for the EOIR, or by an interpretation agency that has a nationwide exclusive contract with the EOIR. This agency’s schedulers assign cases to the independent contractors on their lists, the independent interpreters submit their invoices to this agency, and the agency pays them, not the EOIR. (5) I know many interpreters and agency schedulers who work and have worked in immigration court.  Some of these interpreters, staff, agency supervisors are my friends, and every now and then I have interpreted in immigration court in many parts of the United States as an independent contractor.

It turns out that according to my colleague, by October 1 of last year, the beginning of the federal fiscal year, all immigration proceedings were supposed to be interpreted simultaneously using interpretation equipment. Until now most immigration hearings have been interpreted consecutively without equipment, and the interpretation has been done selectively, meaning that not everything has been interpreted to the respondent. Basically, the only parts of the hearing that are interpreted to the respondent are those when the judge and attorneys address him directly.  I know that by now you are thinking that simultaneous interpretation of the full proceeding is how court interpretation is done every day not just at the federal level, but at the state and local level as well. So, what is the big deal? The difference is that in immigration court, until now, they have been hiring many people who have never interpreted simultaneously.  Moreover, my colleague told me that this simultaneous interpretation was going to be conducted by a single interpreter regardless of the duration of the hearing. No team interpreting under any circumstances.  She also told me that they had contacted the agency but nothing good had come from that communication, except that they were told that they could learn simultaneous interpretation from an on-line tutorial the agency had posted on its “contractors-only” website and that if they ever needed a break they could ask the judge for a recess.  Once she explained their predicament, I thought of a possible solution to the problem.

I must say that between the time I spoke with my colleague and now, and (I believe) mainly because of the pressure applied by most reputable interpreter organizations in the United States, lead by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) The EOIR and the translation agency that hires the independent contractor interpreters have decided not to implement simultaneous interpretation at this time.

I have nothing against the agency that has the contract to provide interpretation services for the EOIR. In fact, I respect what they do: As a business, they are doing exactly what they have to do to profit for their shareholders while at the same time fulfilling the terms of their contract. Also, like I said, I know many interpreters who work in immigration court and some of them are good interpreters, and many more are dedicated and hard-working people; However, the reality is that when many interpreters think of immigration court the first thing that comes to mind is that it is in the hands of an agency that pays very little, demands minimum quality from its interpreters, takes a long time to pay, cancels assignments, and hires many of those interpreters who were not able to work anywhere else.

I have worked in immigration court in different parts of the country and unfortunately, in some ways, this idea is not far from the truth. The agency got this contract, by far the largest interpretation contract with the federal government, bidding a low-cost interpretation service and guaranteeing coverage in all required languages, even the most exotic ones. To fulfill this obligation they developed a program that encompasses a very good business model where they recruit people locally, subject them to a very basic interpretation test, run a security and work-eligibility background check, and provide some entry-level materials on-line. They also hire hard-working administrative staff that rounds up the interpreters at the local level as they are needed and schedules them. The agency has a group of independent contractors, most of them drawn from the same interpreter recruitment system, who have separated themselves from the rest and, after a basic training by the agency, have been willing to become quality-control supervisors of their peers at the local level. Finally, the program includes an interpreter payment system that is lower and less flexible than everything else in the market: No cancelation fees, no parking reimbursement, for many interpreters there is no minimum or a negligible minimum guarantee, a punch-clock system to pay the interpreter, penalties for not having the payment form stamped at the time required (even if the interpreter was already in the facility) and others.  Of course, the EOIR loved the system as a warm body is always standing next to the respondent, the contractor interpreter conveys the basic information to the alien, and the budgetary cost is very low (although I could not find out how much the EOIR pays the agency for each case interpreted.)

It is very difficult to hire so many interpreters, particularly in some of the less common languages. It would definitely be very expensive for the EOIR to attempt to hire all of these interpreters at the local level using a staff interpreter or a clerk. It would also be extremely hard to provide interpretation services at a minimum quality level in some of these languages or areas of the United States.  Maybe the agency system is not the only solution but it is the best. To raise the quality of the interpretation the agency must get these interpreters to do simultaneous interpretation and has to provide the service with two interpreters working together even if it is very hard to find two interpreters to work as a team, particularly in some languages.

As I was arriving to these conclusions it hit me: The federal court system (USAOC) is fulfilling the same needs with higher quality interpretation services, it is doing it at the local level, and it is doing it without an agency as an intermediary. This means that it can be done in immigration court! Then I thought, the federal court system requires of many interpreters every day, but not as many as immigration court where practically all cases require an interpreter. How would the small town get their interpreters for those respondents who speak less common languages? The answer came to me: There are NO immigration courts in any small towns in America. They are all in the largest urban areas and the border towns. It would not be difficult to get interpreters after all. I believe that immigration courts should follow the same procedure as the federal judiciary (and for that matter almost all of the state and local court systems in the country) For the most common languages where there are plenty of interpreters, they should implement and enforce a certification system like the federal court interpreter certification examination where the potential interpreter has to take and pass a very difficult exam before he or she can work in court.  For the other languages they could follow the same criteria used by the federal judiciary to determine who is qualified to work and who is not.  By simply implementing this change, if they pay the same as the judiciary using a half a day and full day fee system, the EOIR would have all federally certified and qualified court interpreters ready to work at a level never seen before in these courts before. This would also include the team interpreting system widely known, accepted, and used at the federal level.  Those presently working through the agency would need to get certified or qualified (depending on the language pair) which means that the good ones would have a higher income and by becoming certified or qualified interpreters, they would also have access to other markets such as the federal and state court systems. Other than waiting for the contract with the interpretation agency to expire, or finding a cost-effective way for an early termination, I see no reason to continue with the intermediary system anymore, unless the agency renegotiates its contract with the EOIR and changes its protocol demanding interpreters meet the same minimum requirements needed to work in the federal court system and pays accordingly. This would probably satisfy everybody without having to get rid of any of the current players.

In the meantime, I suggest these dedicated and hard-working individuals who are presently working in immigration court, and are not certified, start working on improving their skills, getting certified, and while the problem is permanently solved, I invite them to talk directly to the EOIR, and if necessary, to take their case to the media before they have a situation similar to what happened in Great Britain when another agency took over the interpreting services. I also suggest that until the team interpreter standard is adopted, they should take as many breaks as needed when working a long hearing alone, explaining to the judge that they are requesting the break because that type of hearing should be interpreted as a team. If you work as an immigration court interpreter, carry NAJIT position papers with you and give them to judges and attorneys, become members of NAJIT, ATA, and other local professional organizations, go to the annual conferences and present your case to the rest of the interpreter community, the agency does it all the time by getting their staff to present at these conferences. By doing so, you will begin to change the interpreters’ community perception that almost nobody wants to work where you are working. I invite the rest of you to brainstorm, and avoiding postings that contain nothing but complaints, to write down your suggestions so that our immigration interpreter friends and colleagues get what they need and deserve.

Update: on February 11, 2013 EOIR Chief Judge Brian M. O’Leary issued a memo ordering the implementation of simultaneous complete interpretation of all court proceedings without team interpreting. This order will be effective on May 1, 2013.

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