Quality interpreting will be tougher and less profitable.

September 3, 2019 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Government officials are entrusted with taxpayer’s money and they should be good stewards when allocating said resources. Good governments are charged with guaranteeing equality and quality services to those who elected them, and they must wisely decide where to invest and where to cut expenses. Sometimes well-intentioned authorities get it wrong, and unless they rectify, consequences can be ugly.

There are two instances where the United States federal government has adopted policies, and is considering even more steps, that will negatively affect our profession: One of such actions, already in place, impacts those interpreters practicing before the immigration courts; the other one will make accurate interpreting extremely difficult in the healthcare sector.

Even though we have read and heard many voices protesting these government decisions, and that is very good, they all argue the negative effects from the perspective of the beneficiary of the professional service: the millions of individuals living in the United States who do not speak English, but nobody has argued why these changes must be opposed from the interpreters’ perspective. My following comments result from conversations I had with fellow interpreters, immigration attorneys, and my own experience and observations as an interpreter, and from my days when I saw the immigration court system up close as part of an immigration law firm. This should complement what others have said.

Interpreting immigration proceedings.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) which runs the immigration courts, a branch of the Executive Branch of the federal government, not part of an independent judiciary, and run by officials appointed by the current administration, to lower its operational costs, replaced in-person interpreting services during an individual’s first court appearance with “pre-recorded, subtitled orientation videos, or telephone calls…”

These initial appearance hearings, called “Master Calendar Hearings” are the procedural moment when a person sees the immigration judge for the first time, after receiving a “Notice to Appear” (NTA) in court because of a removal proceeding the U.S. government, through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has instituted against him or her. The notice informs the individual of the charges, gives the time and place of the hearing, and it informs immigrants of their right to have an attorney to represent them at no cost to the government (remember, immigration court is Civil Law. Only criminal cases are covered by the constitutional right to have a defense attorney free of charge).

Master Calendar Hearings are very important. During this appearance, a person, technically called the “respondent,” who apparently is not an American citizen, learns of the charges against him, the facts of his case, is informed of his legal rights, and is given the chance to retain an attorney at his own expense or appear without legal representation (pro-se) during the proceedings. The person could request bond or ask for a bond redetermination hearing before the immigration court.

Respondents are told of their rights as a group. In some courts between 80 to 100 people at a time. During the hearing, the judge briefly addresses each individually, asking them their name, date of birth, address, and whether or not they plan to retain an attorney. Judges also ask them if they have questions, if they understand English, and when needed, an interpreter is appointed at no charge. This is very important because respondents need to know that failure to appear to any subsequent hearings will be held without them been there (in absentia) and the result will be a final order of removal and a 10-year bar to any future immigration benefits in the United States. Occasionally, people ask for voluntary departure or concede removability at this hearing.

Before the pre-recorded policy was implemented, judges listened to respondents’ answers to their questions, and conveyed information through an interpreter in close to 90 percent of the cases, this is immigration court where English speakers are the exception. If respondent’s language rarely was spoken in the area, and there were no staff or contract interpreters readily available, judges would use a telephone interpreting service, and for those cases where interpreters were not found, immigration courts would continue the hearing to a future date when an interpreter would be available.

I cannot imagine, and it shows a lack of knowledge on the way immigration courts work, how could a judge ask questions, provide information, and communicate with a non-English speaker. I can even see how a judge can even know that the individual understood the recordings. Some will not understand the spoken language in the video; others cannot read the subtitles in their own language because they may be functionally illiterate. Some may not pay attention to the video. I know how important is to know what to do if an emergency occurs when on an airplane, but I rarely pay attention to the video airlines show teaching me how to buckle my seatbelt. The most logical outcome will be: The judge continues the Master Calendar Hearing until there is an interpreter for the respondent. The consequence of this outcome: a second Master Calendar Hearing, easily avoidable when interpreters are available the first time. Taxpayers’ savings: gone.

Unfortunately, many respondents will be embarrassed to admit they did not understand the video, others may choose a hearing they do not understand instead of sitting in detention for a few weeks waiting a rescheduled hearing with an interpreter; others may concede removability when they had relief because nobody told them so.

Under this new policy, interpreters will encounter the respondent at the hearing on the merits, called “individual hearing”, for the first time. From the interpreter’s perspective, these hearings are similar to a traditional trial, there are legal arguments by the parties, direct and cross-examination of witnesses, references to caselaw, and quotations of official documents on the situation of countries, regions, and other relevant information. When an interpreter is involved from the Master Calendar Hearing, she has time to prepare for the assignment, research country conditions reports, get acquainted with the relief the client is seeking, and develop a glossary of terms relevant to the case and to the respondent’s speech.

Accurate interpreting during individual hearings is difficult because of the wide variety of issues that can be discussed. This is complicated even more due to the cultural differences and level of education of many respondents.  Interpreting during an individual hearing when a pro-se respondent went through a Master Calendar Hearing with a pre-recorded video will be a very difficult task. It is almost impossible to interpret without context, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review expects accurate quality interpreting services under these deplorable circumstances.

In an environment where the federal government wants to slash down all language resources needed in immigration proceedings, therefore compromising the quality of the interpreting services in immigration court, it is very telling that SOSi, the sole agency providing interpreting services in immigration courts nationwide, under a public contract reviewable every year until 2021, has remain silent on this issue. They already showed how willing they were to win that contract a few years ago when their lowest bid ousted long-time provider LionBridge. We all remember how the first thing SOSi did was to reduce interpreter fees from $60 to $35 dollars per hour (they later lost to the interpreters before the National Labor Relations Board NLRB). We must not forget SOSi is a well-established, powerful contractor with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) with a vested interest and a priority to keep its client: The United States federal government happy.

Dear colleagues, all immigration interpreters: staff or contractors, will face a terrible environment where they must do more, much more, with a high probability of a less than perfect rendition, because of the erroneous, and in the long-run more expensive policy enacted by the EOIR. Independent contractors will also have a less profitable immigration practice because all Master Calendar Hearings will be gone. How do you like this: tougher work, less income, providing interpreting services for an agency focused on keeping a federal contract, that cares nothing about interpreters or quality service, all to comply with an absurd government policy that brings nothing favorable to the interpreter to the table?

Healthcare interpreting.

In compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin, including language proficiency, and President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 13166 (2000) during President Barack Obama’s administration the U.S. Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare” in 2010.  Section 1557 of the Act prohibits discrimination in federally-funded or administered healthcare programs on basis of national origin, including language proficiency.

Once the law came to full force, healthcare providers had to provide “qualified” interpreters to those who are not English proficient. Since then, we have come a long way; there are now healthcare interpreter certification programs in several languages, criteria to resort to other qualified individuals in those languages lacking certification programs, and explicitly banning interpreting services by children and relatives of the patient. Interpreting services for languages of lesser diffusion, and for remote areas of the country where in-person certified interpreters were not physically available, a video remote interpreting (VRI) option was developed. I want to make it clear: I dislike VRI for many reasons, but I understand that it was better than the alternative: having a child doing the rendition or no interpreter.

On May of this year, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Health and Human Services Department (HHS) issued a proposed change to Section 1557 which affects many segments of the population, including the elimination of written translated notices informing non-English speakers of their right to have an interpreter, and the option to get interpreting services by video in regions where no interpreters were physically available. Citing savings of $3.2 billion dollars over a 5-year period, the 204-page amendment proposes telephone interpreting instead of the more expensive video remote interpreting.

The patient-physician relationship is very private, often it happens during difficult times, and it could include communicating the worse possible news. Medicine is an imperfect science and it depends on accurate diagnosis, precise instruction, and strict compliance by the patient. Unless a patient is English proficient, none are possible without an interpreter.

VRI is a horrible solution, interpreters who provide this service are at the mercy of the weather, the speed of the internet service, the reliability of the electric company, and the quality of sound, among other things that have nothing to do with interpreting. Telephonic interpreting, maybe good for a 9-11 emergency call, or to make an appointment to the hairdresser, when used for healthcare interpreting is borderline criminal.

Those who think interpreting is all about hearing what a person says and translating it into a different language show their ignorance. Interpreting is much more than that. Communication includes facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and many other factors that need to be picked by the interpreter to do a good job. Interpreting for a medical examination, laboratory work, therapy session, need this visual component more than many other human interactions.

How can an interpreter be satisfied and confident of a telephonic interpretation where the doctor asks the patient: “Is the pain sharper here… or here?”  How can a physician diagnose correctly if the patient reveals his injury by pointing to a body part and nothing else?

Many of the non-English proficient patients come from cultures when it is difficult to take about the human body, even to mention human parts by their name. They solve this uncomfortable situation by pointing to their intimate body parts instead. Hated VRI at least allows the distance interpreter to see what the patient is doing and render an accurate interpretation. Same is true for those patients, many farmers and construction workers from Spanish-speaking countries, wrongly name a body part, or refer to their own body by the name generally applied to animal parts. Hearing “my foot hurts” when they hold their thigh, or “my gizzard is swollen” can be accurately interpreted when the interpreter sees on the screen how the patient holds his thigh or points at his stomach. With telephonic interpreting this would take a lot of time and many questions to the patient. Sometimes it is impossible.

Medical insurance paperwork without a translated notice informing non-English speakers they can request an interpreter for their medical appointment, and long, often uncomfortable telephonically interpreted doctor visits will cause many discouraged patients, who are not proficient in English, staying home, skipping medical appointments, and waiting until it is too late, and more expensive, to provide medical treatments. To say that healthcare services, arguably the most profitable activity in the United States, needs to cut expenses by amending Section 1557 is difficult to buy. This is the business that charges you $75 for the plastic pitcher of water you used during your hospital stay.

To the interpreter, it will mean a more difficult task, a professional practice that goes beyond interpreting and into the world of having to divine what a patient said. More difficult work, same pay, and a diminished rentability. When patients stop going to the doctor because of telephonic interpreting, when people stay away from hospitals because nobody ever told them they could have an interpreter during the medical examination, the need for interpreters will plummet. If implemented, on top of the thousands of deaths it will cause, HHS decision to eliminate right to an interpreter translated written notices, and to replace VRI with a telephone line will be remembered as the decision that killed healthcare interpreting as a profitable practice.

If you are a practicing immigration court or healthcare interpreter, and you want to continue in your filed, working in a fulfilling profession that makes you a nice profit, join the activists working on behalf of immigrants, patients, immigration attorneys associations, the immigration judges union, and healthcare rights activists, and share with them your perspective, make them understand that the quality of your service will suffer because of reasons with nothing to do with the way you practice your craft; explain to them that less profitability will be the easiest way to show the door to the best interpreters practicing immigration and healthcare, leaving only (with a few exceptions) those of a lesser quality and professionalism. Share stories like the ones I have included here. I now ask you to tell us what are you doing as a contingency strategy if profitability leaves immigration court and healthcare interpreting.

What to do as an interpreter when the attorney makes a serious mistake.

November 11, 2013 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the past we have discussed professional and ethical issues in the blog, but I don’t believe we have ever tackled anything as serious as the situation I will share with you today.  This happened to me many years ago and made me think about my professional and ethical boundaries as a court interpreter.

It all started when I was hired by an attorney to interpret during a final decree of dissolution of marriage hearing. In other words, I was retained to interpret in court for a person who was getting a divorce.  I had never worked with this attorney before (or since) but I had seen him many times at different courthouses running from one courtroom to the next. He was a general practitioner who spoke Spanish, advertised on TV, and had a lot of cases.  He called me, we agreed on my fee, and we made an appointment to meet at the courthouse right outside the courtroom some thirty minutes before the hearing.  I arrived first and about ten or fifteen minutes later the attorney showed up accompanied by his client.  Again, keep in mind that the attorney spoke Spanish.  After the introductions, I asked the client the standard questions I am sure you all ask when you just met the non-English speaker:  full name (for spelling purposes because there are no grammar rules when it comes to a person’s name) country of origin (for accent, regional expressions, and general vocabulary) academic background (to assess the individual’s mastery of the target language) and general health-related questions (in case the person may have a special request due to hearing problems for example)  He answered all these questions to my satisfaction, and added that he “…had already discussed everything with (his) lawyer…(and) …everything was clear and in order…”  The attorney, who was present during the exchange, confirmed in Spanish everything his client said.  It was going to be an easy assignment.

When it was time for the hearing all three of us went inside the courtroom.  As soon as I came in I noticed the court clerk, the court reporter, and the bailiff. I didn’t see the other party or her attorney. I asked my client about it, and he informed me that the other party was not going to appear. That she had been given notice by publication because she wasn’t at her last known address anymore, and that his client would probably be awarded sole custody of the children born to the marriage despite the fact that they were with the mother at an unknown location.  This happens often, and I wasn’t complaining. The hearing was going to be even shorter. Boy I was glad I had successfully negotiated a generous minimum fee.

Next the judge came out and took the bench. The hearing started.  After the bailiff called the caption of the case and my client and I entered our appearance on the record, the judge placed the Spanish speaker petitioner under oath and began questioning him.  To my surprise, the petitioner told the judge that he and his wife had never lived together as a married couple in the United States. In fact, he told the court that his wife had never been to the U.S.

I looked at the judge and I saw that I wasn’t the only one in the courtroom that was shocked by the answers.  The judge also learned that the petitioner had never paid child support to his children. Next the judge asked the petitioner when the last time he had known the respondent’s address was. The Spanish speaker said, and I interpreted, that although he didn’t know where his wife lived, he was pretty sure he could find out because her parents still lived at the same address they had lived at for over twenty years.

With that, the judge shook his head. Looked at the attorney for a long time, and then said: “…I hereby dismiss this petition for dissolution of marriage due to lack of jurisdiction.  For this court to be able to hear this case, at some point in time the parties had to live within the judicial district as a married couple; unless without having lived within the jurisdiction, both parties voluntarily consent to the jurisdiction of this court.  None of these circumstances happened in this case…” As if this wasn’t enough, addressing the petitioner, the judge added:  “…Sir, I have no doubt that your attorney will explain to you what just happened. He will also explain to you the following order: It is the order of the court that petitioner pay child support to his minor children according to the schedule applicable to this district. The child support payment will be retroactive to the time when petitioner ceased to live with the minors. I find that I have jurisdiction to enter this order because petitioner is a resident of the judicial district.  Good luck Sir…” The judge got up and exited the courtroom.  There was absolute silence. The Spanish speaker turned to his attorney and asked him what had just happened. He even remarked: “…I don’t think I am divorced yet…”  His attorney asked him to step outside the courtroom. We all did.

As we were leaving the courtroom, the attorney approached me and whispered to my ear in English: “…We better get your money from him right away. He won’t be a happy camper once he learns what just happened…” Once we were outside, the attorney told his client: “…Well, it didn’t go as we planned it, but we can fix it. I will explain everything when we get to my office…but first let’s pay the interpreter so he can go…”  The Spanish speaker pulled out some cash and with no hesitation he paid me right at the steps of the courthouse. This was a first for me, but I had done my job, so I took my fee, gave him a receipt, and said goodbye.  That was the last I heard about that case.  To this date, more than twenty years later, I still don’t know what happened.

Now, for me to arrive to the conclusion that I should get paid for my services was a no-brainer. I did my job.  The part of this situation that I had to debate in my head before I said my goodbyes was about the lawyer’s conduct and the damages caused to the petitioner by this apparent negligence.  This is how I made my decision: First, I didn’t know all the facts. I had no way to know if the attorney and his client knew that a dismissal was a possibility, but what they were really trying to do was to avoid a long and costly divorce proceeding. It could be expensive to look for the spouse back in their home country. This could have been a strategy. Maybe the lawyer really spaced out and didn’t consider the possibility of a lack of jurisdiction; maybe they were going to regroup at the office and try to either find the spouse and get her to consent to the jurisdiction of the court, or to file a divorce petition in their country.  Maybe the attorney was going to tell him that a child support order from this judge would be unenforceable back in his country, and that a child support ordered by a judge back home would involve a lesser amount that would be more in synch with the economy of the country of his children. Or maybe he was just going to apologize and refund the attorney’s fees.  The thing is that I didn’t know and I had no reason to think the worst.  Not many lawyers are willing to lose their license and reputation for a case that small. He was a big shot with TV ads and lots of clients.  Moreover, that was not my role. I had no legal, professional, or ethical grounds to do anything other than to take my money and leave.  There are legal channels for people who want to redress a controversy. The petitioner had to be the one to decide to do that, not me. The fact that he did not speak English did not mean that he was incapable to defend himself, and it certainly didn’t give me the right to get involved in a situation that was not my business. The judge didn’t get involved. He even said that he had no doubt that the attorney would explain everything to his client.  So you see, I defeated that impulse that many colleagues have to become super heroes, and I stayed out of it. Of course, if subpoenaed, I would have testified to what I saw and heard, but that is different. To this day I believe that I did the right thing and I would like to hear from you to see if you agree or disagree. I also invite you to share with all of us other situations where you have faced ethical or professional issues and the way you resolved them.

The ten worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Part 1.

March 26, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I know that many of you read and contributed to the first posting of this series that dealt with the bad things that judges do to court interpreters.  Well, it is now time for the lawyers to be on the spotlight.  Several years ago I was retained by an attorney (I had never met before) to interpret for a petitioner during the final hearing of a divorce proceeding (final orders, permanent orders, final decree hearing, depending on the place where you live) The attorney contacted me the day before and agreed to pay my urgent fee usually charged for events requested on short notice.  “…It will be really quick…” he said, “…the respondent isn’t even in the country.  We’ll be in and out…”  So we appeared in court the following morning, the judge took the bench and the hearing began.  After the attorney made his arguments to the bench, the judge asked the petitioner how long had he and his wife lived together in the United States.  The petitioner answered in Spanish that his wife had never been to the United States. After a few more questions, and while the attorney was sweating bullets because of this “unexpected” development, the judge dismissed the case stating that he lacked jurisdiction over the parties as they had never lived as a married couple within his county limits. Of course, I interpreted everything to the petitioner but it was clear that he did not understand.  During the judge’s oral decision that turned into a scolding to the lawyer, the attorney turned to his client and whispered in Spanish: “luego te explico” (I’ll explain later) Once the hearing ended and we were in the hallway inside the courthouse, the attorney approached me and asked for my invoice telling me: “…Give me your receipt so we can get the money from my client and you get paid. I don’t think that he will be willing to pay for anything once he understands what happened…” So the lawyer asked his client for my fee, I got paid cash right there inside the courthouse, and the attorney asked his client to go to this office with him so he could explain what had just happened and the reason why “this judge” had decided not to divorce him “yet.”  Well, under any standards this is a horror story that we as interpreters sometimes have to live through; however, this is not a posting about the worst ten things that attorneys do to their clients. This is about the ten worst things they do to us interpreters, so horror stories like the one I mentioned will have to wait for their day on center stage.

Once again keep in mind that I will focus on the attorney, intentionally leaving the clerk’s worst 10, witness’ worst 10, and so forth for future articles.  I am writing this with a therapeutic perspective, trying to add some possible solutions to these problems while at the same time creating empathy and inviting a good healthy laugh when relating to these horror stories. I also want to underline that most of the attorneys I work with are real professionals I have worked with for years. Those who fit this article are not on my list of regular clients. Unlike with the judges, we as interpreters get to chose the attorneys we work with, and that is a big difference.  Because of the length of this posting, I have decided to publish it in two parts. This is part one. Part two will be posted next week.

Here we go:

  1. “You are going to charge me all that money just for talking? Those lawyers who do not have the slightest idea of what we do and firmly believe that because we speak two (or more) languages we are pocketing easy money.  A quick solution would be to stay firm and tell him that we are not just talking, that we are interpreting, and simply say that this is what you charge, that you provide a professional service, and that you will not bargain with them.  Long term solution: Talk to the attorney and explain your services in depth. Make him see the advantages of having a real professional interpreter and run by him the potential problems and complications when the service is poorly provided.  With certain clients you can even adjust your fee because of the work volume they represent.  If all these efforts fail, just fire the client; do not accept any work from him.  Remember, a cheap client will be a bad client in all other aspects of the professional relationship. Move on.
  2. Here, take these papers and explain them to my client.”  There are attorneys that think of us as their servants, paralegals, co-counselors, and many other things.  They seem to think that it is a waste of time for them to be around when you are going to be doing “all the talking.” A good short term solution is to ask them with great emphasis if what they mean is that they want you to sight-translate the documents and to tell their client that they will answer any questions after you finish translating. Repeat the last part to the defendant before you start translating, and refuse to answer any questions.  For a long term solution you can explain what your legal and ethical boundaries and obligations are, what is exactly a sight translation, and suggest that these documents be read in advance at the detention facility or the law office (depending on each case) If hired by the court, you should ask the coordinator/supervisor to talk to the attorneys in order to avoid these situations in the future.
  3. “Your Honor, that is not what my client said”. It is common for the Attorney to speak the native language of the defendant. This is usually one of the main reasons a non-English speaker goes to a certain attorney.  You and I know that there are many lawyers who think they speak the foreign language even when their level is way below fluency .Any attorney will tell you that it is impossible to know what a client will tell the judge, and they often say something that will hurt them, especially those who come from a different culture.  Because of the attorney’s knowledge of the foreign language, he will usually learn the disastrous answer given by his client before the words are interpreted to the judge, and many times they will try to blame the poor answer on the interpretation by saying that their client didn’t say what the interpreter said, or by arguing that the question was not interpreted correctly.  One time a lawyer interrupted me in open court arguing that his client had not said what I interpreted, that she was Cuban and therefore I was not qualified to understand and interpret her answers. What I did next is a good short term solution:  Simply state on the record that you stand by your interpretation or rendition, and if necessary state your credentials.  A more durable solution would be to make sure judges and attorneys know and understand that we are the language experts in the courtroom, that when we make a mistake we admit it and promptly correct it, and that our preparation and credentials go beyond speaking two languages.  We should always interpret what the client says, even when the attorney wanted them to say something else. 
  4. “I know I had to pay you long ago, but I cannot pay you because my client hasn’t paid me yet.” It is common for the lawyer to think that “we are in this together” and assume that it is perfectly fine to delay our payment when their client hasn’t paid them.  Unfortunately for those attorneys, we have no client-provider relationship with their client. Our legal relationship was established by a written (ideally) or an oral agreement to interpret during a certain specific event at a certain rate.  This legally binding agreement is not conditioned to a foreign event such as the attorney being paid by his client who happens to be a third party in this interpretation contract. To solve the problem as expeditiously as possible when you have no written agreement, talk to the attorney (he knows that his payment has nothing to do with you) and negotiate payment; maybe if you give him two weeks to pay; you can also take partial payments if you trust the lawyer, but never wait until he gets paid. Many clients never pay their attorneys when they did not get everything they thought they would get from the case. If you have a written contract, stick to it. Send it to a collections agency or take the lawyer to court if necessary. Remember, this is how you make a living and you earned the money. The long-term solution for all services in the future, especially when you do not know the Law Firm very well, has to be a written contract detailing payment, default of payment, and collection costs. In my experience all attorneys sign it when asked to do so. We have to be smart and take advantage of the legal protections that exist.
  5. “Sorry Judge, but we are late because the Interpreter took forever reading the plea agreement.”   Some attorneys want to save themselves a trip to a detention center by informing their clients about a potential plea agreement when they see their clients in court. I have had many lawyers ask me to read a plea agreement or a presentence investigation report just minutes before a scheduled hearing.  I cannot count the times that I have read these documents in holding cells and jury boxes. Then, after reading the always long and exhausting documents, most attorneys answer their client’s questions.  Of course, reading these documents really means sight translating them because they are written in English.  As you know, this is a difficult task and it takes time to do it right; add to that the time the attorney has to spend answering questions from the defendant and sometimes convincing his client to take the offer because that is the best possible outcome of the case.  When done properly, we are talking of hours of work, and I haven’t even mentioned the time it takes for the jail to bring the defendant to the holding cell.  Of course it is true that while we are working our tail off doing this sight translation, most attorneys are just sitting there doing nothing. I am sure it is extremely boring and frustrating to see how the time goes by and the time for the hearing approaches, but it does not justify blaming the delay on the interpreter who has been working hard all this time.  It is the attorney’s obligation and responsibility to defend and advise his client, they know how long it takes to go over those documents, and they know that it should be done on an earlier date. Such a situation can be avoided by talking to the lawyer as soon as he requests the sight translation and telling him that the process will take time and most likely will not be over by the time the judge calls the case. Now it is the attorney who has to decide what to do: request a continuance, be pushed to the end of the docket, change the hearing to the afternoon, etc., and if he ignores the suggestion, as an officer of the court you can always answer the attorney’s complaint by stating on the record what just happened. This will cover you in case of a formal complaint or investigation by the court.  The better long-term solution would be to always agree with the private attorney to do these sight translations days before a hearing, and for the court appointed attorneys and public defenders you should talk to the courthouse’s chief interpreter or administrator and ask them to require these documents to be read to the defendant ahead of the hearing date.

These are my first five. Next week I will post the other five. In the meantime, I invite you to share your stories, anecdotes and opinions regarding this frustrating but essential part of a court interpreter’s professional practice.

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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