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 lesson to all interpreters.

October 12, 2015 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We have seen over the past few weeks how a grassroots movement by some of our colleagues has produced results that until recently would have been considered unrealistic.  I am referring to the freelance United States immigration court interpreters who, so far, have refused to accept the contractual conditions offered by a new federal government contractor that does not deal with them as language professionals but as unqualified laborers.

For many years, federal government contractors did their bidding and earned contracts from the immigration courts (EOIR) based on a widely accepted assumption that immigration court interpreters would take any fee offered to them, regardless of how low it was. This is how the bidding process worked and produced the abhorrent working conditions that LionBridge imposed on the interpreters, including extremely low fees, absurd cancellation policies, unprofessional treatment where the interpreters’ word had no credibility when their word conflicted with court staff, and even a penalty for those who wanted to be paid on time.  For these reason many interpreters left, or never entered, the immigration court interpreting field. It was just unattractive to those who wanted to make a higher income and expected to be treated like professionals.  Even now, the testimony of several attorneys reflects this reality when they comment that, many times, the quality of the interpretation in immigration court was lower than at those courts managed by the Administrative Offices of the Courts.

This is the environment that SOSi, the new bidder, encountered when they came into the picture. No wonder they pushed interpreter working conditions to a low never seen before.  They assumed that this time would be like the others and interpreters would take the offer, no matter how unfair and insulting.  They were wrong.

You see, friends and colleagues, a few things have changed since the last time the contract was awarded to LionBridge. By the time SOSi bids for the EOIR contract, there were more interpreters with a formal education than before; these colleagues had entered to the world of immigration court interpreting for many reasons: to gain some professional experience, to put their name out there, to have some income to begin to repay their student loans…

They worked as immigration court interpreters, but they were not there to stay; their time working over there would be a step towards a more fulfilling and better paid career. They did not plan to stay, but while they were there, they shared their ideas about professionalism and their personal dreams with the other interpreters who were already there. They inspired many of them to study to better themselves as interpreters, to go to a community college and study interpretation, to take a state or federal court interpreter certification exam, to become certified as healthcare interpreters, and so on.  The crowd that SOSi encountered did not look much like the one its predecessor found some twenty years earlier. The result: They would not put up with worse working conditions than the horrendous ones they had suffered from the previous contractor, so they refused to sign the contracts, and the deadline for SOSi to take over interpreting services came and went without fulfilling their obligation because of their lack of the most precious and indispensable asset to provide interpreting services: the professional immigration court interpreter.

These colleagues took advantage of things that were not there the last time the contract was up for bids: social media, communication and peer support, information about the working conditions of other court interpreters working somewhere else, and the experience of our colleagues in the United Kingdom with another agency devoted to the degradation of the professional interpreter: Capita.

The refusal to sign these individual contracts happened all over the United States, the voice 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 issue in English (http://www.buzzfeed.com/davidnoriega/immigration-courts-could-lose-a-third-of-their-interpreters#.sopPZ5w26) in Spanish (http://www.eldiariony.com/2015/10/07/disputa-laboral-de-interpretes-amenaza-con-agravar-demoras-en-tribunales-de-inmigracion/) and discussed it on the radio (http://www.scpr.org/programs/take-two/2015/10/09/44770/backlog-at-immigration-courts-could-grow-with-a-pa/)

The contractor, probably frustrated by this “unexpected occurrence”, apparently decided to get help from local language services agencies all over the country to see if, by buffering this link between them and the professional immigration court interpreter, some colleagues would agree to sign the individual contracts, and, unless there is some legal figure no interpreter is aware of, as a result of their signature, they would become contractors of a sub-contractor (the local agency), putting them one more step away from the entity that won the contract: SOSi. In fact, I have heard from several interpreters in different cities who have contacted me with their concerns about the contents of this contract that has been offered to them.

Although the following is in no way legal advice, nor is intended in the slightest to be such a thing, I have decided to give my opinion about some of the portions of the contract as they were presented to me by my colleagues. Remember, this is just my opinion, based on my many years of professional experience as a professional interpreter, and my years in law school.  Your opinion may be different and I will not dispute such a thing.  Let’s see:

The most common concern about our colleagues can be summarized by this colleague’s observations: In general, I have my doubts that my previously negotiated  half/day and  full/day rates would really be respected, in light of SOSi’s option to pay these “…unless EOIR determines that using a different CLIN would result in less cost to the government.”  What does this mean in plain English?

There is a legal principle in civil law (and contracts are civil law) called the parol evidence rule. This principle states that all negotiations between the parties to a contract that took place before or simultaneously to the signing of a contract, that are not clearly spelled out on the document, are non-existent and therefore, non-binding and unenforceable. This means that all “negotiated rates” that are not in writing are irrelevant. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parol_evidence_rule) (http://thelawdictionary.org/parol-evidence-rule/)

A follow up question to the last comment was this one: what is a CLIN?”

Although I do not know for sure, I believe that “CLIN” in this context refers to “Contract Line Item Number” This would mean that if EOIR finds a legal way to pay less than the “previously negotiated rate” or If other interpreters are willing to work for less, the pay could be impacted.

Some interpreters are concerned about the travel expenses when they are asked to go out of town to interpret a hearing.  Apparently, the section of this contract that addresses this issue does not mention the English<>Spanish interpreters.  As far as travel expenses, keeping in mind that English<>Spanish interpreters cover the immense majority of the immigration cases, my feeling is that they could be leaving the English<>Spanish interpreters out of the equation because they feel they can meet these needs with Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) and with local folks if needed.

It is also worrisome that said contract seems to emphasize “telephonic interpreting”, indicating that this service will be paid at an hourly fee. As we all know, like all professional services providers, interpreters sell their time.  Getting paid for the time interpreted based on an hourly pay would result in a detrimental situation for the interpreter, because nobody is paying for the time it takes to this professional services provider to get ready to do the rendition (travel to the courthouse or detention center, setting aside big chunks of time to do the assignment, etc.)

According to some colleagues, SOSi appears very firm on its insistence that interpreters compete for offered work assignments on a generally accessible “available assignments” website.  In other words, interpreters would no longer be contacted individually, as with Lionbridge, to accept or reject offered assignments.  Apparently, SOSi’s recruiters have explained the validity of this policy as a way to avoid having to hire assignment coordinators.

In my opinion, Immigration court interpreters must keep in mind that SOSi’s contractor history and system is based on bidding subcontractors. That is how most Department of Defense contracts work (and remember, they are primarily a defense contractor) so I don’t see them changing strategy. All interpreters could be considered subcontractors bidding for a job every time there is a need for an interpreter.

This is the most critical hour for our immigration court colleagues because this is when experienced agencies and contractors put in practice their well-rehearsed tactics.  Some interpreters may decide to sign a contract even though the “promised, negotiated fee” is different from what the contract states, or it is hidden in an appendix or table. Immigration court interpreters will only achieve the dignified treatment they deserve, and has been denied for so many years, if they continue to speak with one voice, and it will get more difficult unless those with more experience and formal academic education step in and help their colleagues.  We must remember that fear can derail any project, and the immigration court interpreters are not a homogeneous group. Unlike conference interpreters, many of them interpret at a questionable quality level, others may think, deeply inside, that the ridiculous fees offered by the contractor are not so bad, some may live from paycheck to paycheck, and may decide to sign the draconian contract; and some of them may not really be freelancers, but employees with no steady job.

The truth is, that to get to a professional fee, the interpreters have to be willing to stay away from the immigration courts for as long as it takes, and during that time, if they are truly freelance interpreters, they will find their income doing so many other interpreting assignments. If they are really independent professionals, they will have to come to terms with the realization that well-paid immigration court interpreting will not be an everyday thing; it will be one of many other interpreting assignments that the true freelancer will have to cover. EOIR is a client. It is not an employer.

The contractor, SOSi, LionBridge, or any other has a responsibility to their shareholders, and that is fine. The federal government has budgetary limitations, and that is fine.  It is because of these undisputed facts that the independent immigration court interpreter needs to understand that to get the financial resources to cover his professional fee, the service will have to be more efficient. Less hours of work at the EOIR, but better pay.  That is how the freelancing world works, and all interpreters will need to understand it; otherwise, the lesson learned will not be the one this entry begins with, but instead, the lesson will be that once again, because of the interpreters’ lack of determination and unity, things will stay the same.  I ask my dear friends and colleagues not to waste this unique opportunity in their careers.

Although these lines merely contain my personal opinion, and in no way this pretends to be any legal advice for anybody, if I were facing the situation these immigration court interpreters in the United States have in front of them, I would hold on to signing anything until it is clear who stays and who does not. If SOSi stays, to become attractive to the interpreter community, they will probably make some changes to their contractual policy towards the interpreters. If there is a new different language services agency, I would wait to see what they have to say first. Also, for my peace of mind and for the safety of my professional future, I would never sign a contract after talking to the HR people. I would ask for the legal department because I would need to understand, and know, the contractual terms, and the likelihood that they will be honored by the language service provider. I now invite you to share your opinion with the rest of us, and for the benefit of as many interpreters as possible.

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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