State court interpreter certifications could turn meaningless.
October 16, 2014 § 17 Comments
A couple of weeks ago I received an email that concerns me enormously. I am sure that many of you who are based in the United States have received similar emails from state-level judicial agencies. In my case, I got an electronic communication from the Administrative Office of the Courts of one of the fifty states in the U.S. (not the federal government) this was one of those global emails that are sent out to everybody on a master list. Basically, the message was that the National Center for State Courts in the United States (NCSC), apparently in coordination with (at least) some states, is planning to offer remote telephonic interpreting across state lines, and for that purpose, the states (and I assume the NCSC as well) are compiling lists of state-level certified court interpreters who may want to be part of the interpreter pool that will be used to interpret court hearings from a different state. Although I hope the message’s meaning was different, this is what I understood. The email is written in such a way that, to the reader, this idea looks good and beneficial for everyone: the interpreters, because they will have more work (although I would guess that the fees offered by the state governments will not be anything to brag about) the states with underserved populations due to the lack of interpreters, because they will get somebody who has been certified somewhere by a state-level judiciary, and the foreign language speaker, as they will have the services of a professional interpreter instead of a family member or a paraprofessional.
Does it sound good to you? Well, if I understood the email as a communication asking permission to include interpreters’ names on a master list to indiscriminately interpret by phone, regardless of the state, it did not sound even half decent to me. Let me explain:
It is true that state-level certified interpreters are better equipped than paraprofessionals, and therefore the service provided should be of better quality. It is true that all state-level certified interpreters have attended a basic orientation and they have passed a court certification test (now administered by the NCSC or CLAC) and in many cases they have also taken an ethics and professional responsibility test. This obviously puts them ahead of those unscrupulous people that are roaming through the hallways of many courthouses in the United States. Unfortunately, and this is the real and very big problem: these interpreters, who have been certified by one of the fifty states, would now interpret cases from other states where both substantive and adjective law are different. That is the problem. The interpreter will interpret legal proceedings based on legislation that he does not know. Unlike U.S. federally certified court interpreters who work nationwide because they interpret the same federal legislation all across the country, these state-level individuals will have to deal with fifty, sometimes very different, legal systems.
Just like the age to get married and gun control laws vary from state to state, the catalog of crimes and civil law contracts are different. Think of one single situation: battery and assault; or is it assault and menacing? Well, the answer is: it depends on the state, and the differences are radical. Penalties and procedures also change depending on the state. This is why attorneys can only practice in those jurisdictions where they have passed the Bar Exam. It is a very delicate matter.
If this is indeed what the NCSC and the states want to do (and I hope I am wrong) then I am extremely concerned as an interpreter, because this will be another attempt to de-professionalize our jobs and make them look more like the legal secretary who can work anywhere, and less like the attorneys who can only practice in the state (or states) where they are members of the state bar. Sure, I understand that state-level agencies will praise the “benefits” of this solution, which in reality will solve their own problem (not the interpreters’ or the foreign language speakers’): Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This is a state-level priority because states that do not comply will lose federal money.
I am also worried as an attorney for several reasons: First, states will allow interpreting services across state lines using telecommunications. This could be an interstate commerce issue where the federal government has to participate (at least); but the second reason is the one that motivated me to write this post: interpreters who do not know the legal system of a particular state will practice in that jurisdiction. They may physically be in the state where they are certified, but their services will affect a court system, and litigants in another state where they have never demonstrated their capacity to practice. I believe attorneys who represent foreign speakers need to be aware of this potential “solution” so that from the beginning they know that perhaps the case could later be appealed for ineffective assistance of the interpreter. Attorneys need to know that when they are advising their client on an assault charge in their home state, they may be using the services of an interpreter from a state where assault really means battery. Lawyers will need to assess the potential procedural complications in case they sue the interpreter. Jurisdiction will have to be determined, and these lawsuits could end up in federal court.
If this “program” has also been planned for civil cases, then the problem is worse. Remember, there are at least three different civil legal systems in the United States, the one followed by those states who have a system based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition, those whose system comes in part from the days where these territories were part of the Spanish Crown (just think divorce and community property division) and then Louisiana and the Napoleonic written system. As an attorney, or a foreign language speaker, I would not want to have an interpreter from another state, much less one from a state where the system is different.
I sure hope that this “solution” (if conceived as I understood it) is discarded and the states look for better options such as a higher fee for those interpreting in state courts. There are very good and capable interpreters everywhere in the United States, it is just that they will not work for the fees currently offered. A more attractive fee would also encourage others who would like to join the profession but are reluctant because of the lack of money to even make a decent living.
By the way, these problems apply to those languages where there is no certification and the interpreters are registered or qualified to work in court by a particular state.
I really wish I am mistaken and this is not happening in the United States, but if it is, I will continue to watch the developments of this program, and if needed, I will speak up in legal forums to bring awareness of the potential risks generated by using state-level certified interpreters in places where they have never been certified. I now ask you to share your thoughts, and concerns, about this potential change that would end up rendering a state-level court interpreter certification useless.
Interpreting at the Immigration Court: Is it really headed for disaster?
February 4, 2013 § 18 Comments
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.