Do some state courts treat foreigners as second-class litigants?

February 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

For years, and especially during the past few months, there has been a lot of talk about the communities of foreign-born individuals who are physically present in the United States.  All aspects of their lives have been debated and scrutinized: from their immigration status to their religion, from their ethnic origin, to the language they speak at home. Many articles have been written, and many discussions have been held about their right to stay in the country, the impact they have on the economy, and the actions of the federal government regarding their admission to the United States and the exclusion proceedings instituted against them. The policy the federal government has adopted towards foreign-born individuals in the United States has been rightfully questioned, criticized and denounced.

As interpreters, we deal with foreign-born people on a daily basis. We see what happens at the immigration courts (EOIR), the United States Immigration and Citizen Services’ (USCIS) interviews, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hearings, and the federal judicial system.  The news are not always good, but at least they are on the spotlight.  Scandals such as SOSi’s abhorrent practices towards immigration court interpreters, the White House’s six-country travel ban, and the talk about the wall between Mexico and the U.S. are forcing the issue, and eventually things will have to change.

Unfortunately, foreign-born individuals physically present in the United States as immigrants, non-immigrants, and undocumented, face another terrible injustice that is turning into a reality, and eventually it could become an everyday threat: I am referring to a practice followed by state courts in many places that is gaining popularity and acceptance by the establishment, sometimes due to ignorance or indifference, and many times because of incompetence and greed.

This modern form of potential discrimination by state-level Administrative Offices of the Courts against people whose first language is not English has to do with access to justice: It is evident to me that state governments could be systematically discriminating against people who lack fluency, or do not speak English, by denying them the services of certified court interpreters in languages with a certification program, just because state government officials want to save money.

It is undeniable that those states where the language access program is not managed by a professional interpreter are at a tremendous disadvantage because there is a person with neither knowledge nor interpreting background at the helm; but the problem is even worse. Some states where the head of the program is an interpreter, and many state-level courthouses with full and part-time staff interpreters are just passively allowing for this to happen without moving a finger for fear to lose their jobs.

The potentially discriminatory practice goes like this:

During the Obama administration, state-level courts were made aware of the fact that the federal government was going finally to enforce, after almost forty years, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which allows the withholding of federal funds dedicated to the states when the latter do not provide universal access to all the services offered, even if some accommodations need to be made in order to avoid discrimination based on many categories, among them not being able to speak, or fluently speak English. This included all state-level courts.

Before this development many states were running court interpreter certification programs. California had its own program, and in July 1995 Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington State founded a consortium. Other states joined the consortium, and many states began to offer the services of certified court interpreters for criminal cases. A handful of states even provided certified court interpreters for certain litigants in civil cases.  Unfortunately, lack of vision by the Administrative Offices of State Courts and by State Legislatures made the profession’s growth difficult because they refused to pay certified court interpreters a professional fee commensurate to the difficult, and sometimes dangerous, services provided.

This reality, coupled with judges’ ignorance that permitted non-certified court interpreters to appear in court, even though the needed language pair has a certification program, and certified interpreters were available, created an exodus of many of the best interpreters who migrated to more profitable interpreting fields, and made the profession less than attractive to new generations.

When the notice of enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act arrived, the states were faced with the possibility of losing huge amounts of money from the federal government. They knew that to save “their” money, they would need to provide access to justice to all individuals who did not speak English.

They finally realized what they had done (although they did not recognized it, or refused to acknowledge their fault). There were not enough interpreters to fulfill the federal mandate, and they did not want to lose their subsidies!

The best thoughtful solution to this problem would have been to boost the popularity of court interpreting as a profession by actively promoting the career and by making it more appealing. Responsible States would have developed a plan to encourage teaching of court interpreting at universities, colleges and community colleges. They needed to launch a campaign among high school students informing them of the potential opportunities as certified court interpreters. They needed to increase the times they offered their certification examinations, and they needed to pay an attractive professional fee, with cost of living adjustments, to all certified court interpreters. They needed to do this by lobbying State Legislatures for more funds, and if unsuccessful, by cutting or reducing other non-essential services and devoting those resources to the certified interpreter program. It was a matter of priorities and doing the right thing.

This did not happen. Instead of doing these things, state officials got together to see how they could keep the federal money coming their way. This is how the states came up with the Language Access Services Section (LASS), the Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC). A system designed to protect their federal funds while giving the appearance of granting language access to all foreign-language speakers in State-court systems.

As a result of these developments, states opted for the easiest and cheapest solution, which basically follows three major principles: (1) Use video remote interpreting (VRI) as much as possible to reduce costs of an in-person interpreting service, and pay less to the interpreter as they would get paid by the minute, or in more “generous” states by the hour at a much reduced fee; (2) Use all those who demonstrated that they are not fit to become certified court interpreters, by creating a “new classification” of “credentialed interpreters” (Nevada) or “Justice System interpreters” (New Mexico) so that individuals who failed the court interpreter certification exam can work interpreting court proceedings; and (3) Use certified court interpreters as little as possible, while giving the appearance that these questionable new classifications had to be retained because no certified court interpreter was “reasonably available” to do the job.

This is happening in many states, and I ask you to please include in the comment section a report of what is going on in your own states. Because what is currently taking place in Nevada and New Mexico has come to my attention, I will share the main points with all of you.

The Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts is considering implementing this new category of paraprofessionals by rewarding those who fail the court interpreter certification test with access to work in court as interpreters. These decisions are being considered by the Nevada Court Interpreter Advisory Committee which is integrated by judges and administrators, and no independent certified court interpreter is part of the committee. Interpreters do not get notice of the Committee meetings, and so far, the person in charge of the interpreter program at the Nevada Administrative Office of the Courts apparently has shown no desire to inform interpreters ahead of time so they can at least attend the meetings.

Nevada courts use the services of way cheaper paraprofessional non-certified court interpreters even when certified ones are available, and currently, this state’s certified court interpreters are among the lowest paid interpreters in the country, despite the fact that judges and administrators make six figure salaries in Nevada.  It is clear that there is a problem with the state judiciary’s priorities.

The New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts is already rewarding those who fail the court interpreter exam by using the services of these much cheaper paraprofessional “justice System interpreters” (JSI) even when certified court interpreters are available.  Under the excuse of unsuccessfully attempting to find a certified court interpreter, they are retaining the services of these individuals even when certified court interpreters were ready and willing to do the job. The State is also resorting to the way cheaper video remote interpreting (VRI) even when interpreters appear from other states and are not familiar with New Mexico law and procedure. It is very concerning that they are using this system and these interpreters for hearings of such importance as sentencing hearings.

The New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee does include a disproportionate minority of independent interpreters; however, it is said that its meetings are sometimes hostile towards independent interpreters who raise objections to the dismantling of the certified court interpreter program, and that some interpreters have been refused work in the state court system even after all possible grounds for denial have been dissipated and proved unfounded.

Despite the fact that judges and the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts make six figure salaries, New Mexico certified court interpreters have not seen a fee adjustment in a number of years, their expense reimbursements have been significantly reduced, and instead of having a professional relationship with a judiciary that makes an effort to prioritize access to justice and find funds to do it, they have been warned by the AOC that there is no money. They face an administration with an attitude that could be interpreted as contempt towards foreign language litigants, moved by a philosophy at the top that apparently believes that the AOC only has a legal obligation to provide “an interpreter”, not a certified court interpreter. To me, this is the pull the rabbit out of the hat principle where you create an “interpreter” category in order to get federal money. It is not about having a warm body next to the non-English litigant. It is about quality.  The federal law requirement had in mind a professional service.

I do not believe that this is the time for interpreters to take it on the chin. There is a lot of turmoil in the country at this time, but the rights of foreigners are center-stage. Let’s seize the moment to protect the profession and make sure that states do not get away with this plan which could potentially discriminate against speakers of a foreign language by treating them as second-class litigants.

I suggest you educate your communities, talk to your state legislators, and speak to your local media. All of it is necessary, but I also propose you do two additional things that could make the difference:

First, I wonder how many litigants are aware of the fact that the individual provided by the court to “interpret” for them is not a certified court interpreter; that in fact, they will be dealing with somebody who has already demonstrated that he or she is not fit to be a certified court interpreter because he or she failed the exam. I would approach people in the courthouse and make them aware of this circumstance; I would even print a flyer explaining to them that this “interpreter” categories are as good as a three dollar bill, regardless of what the government tells them. Ask them how they would feel if instead of a licensed physician, their outpatient surgery was going to be done by somebody who failed to become a licensed doctor.  Ask the foreign language speaker’s attorney what she or he would do if the court were to appoint a person who failed the state bar as the litigant in a divorce proceeding because there were no children to the marriage. You will see how fast they demand a real certified court interpreter for their case.

Second, organize yourselves either through your local professional interpreter association, or independently, and volunteer to attend court hearings where this paraprofessionals are “interpreting” (after all court is open to the public) and keep score. Write down every time one of these individuals is late for court, acts unethically, does something unprofessional, and makes an interpreting mistake. Write down how they enter their appearance in court, see if they claim to be certified court interpreters. After a few months, or during election time, send this information to the State Bar, to the publishers of voters’ guides, to the political parties, to non-for-profit organizations with tremendous weight in court elections such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and to the local media. This way people will know who are the judges who care about access to justice, and who are the judges who only care about getting federal money.

I do not believe that these actions will solve all problems, but they will help to expose these programs for what they really are. If you do not do it, nobody will; not because they do not care, but because they do not know. I now invite you to share with the rest of us the current situation in your own state administrative office of the courts.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2016.

December 29, 2016 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2016 is coming to an end and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2017, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months.  As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, 2016 was no exception.  The year that ends gave me once again the opportunity to work with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had some positive developments this year:  In the United States, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) and in Mexico the Organización Mexicana de Traductores (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) held very successful conferences in San Antonio, Texas and Guadalajara, Mexico respectively. In April I attended the Sixth Latin American Translation and Interpreting Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina where some of the best professionals gathered to learn and share experiences in a high-quality, professional environment. I also had the opportunity to participate in other professional conferences and seminars of tremendous level where I was honored to share some experiences and exchange ideas with many professional colleagues. Thank you to all my colleagues who attended my presentations, workshops and seminars in Cancún, Toronto, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Querétaro, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Lima, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Pachuca, Phoenix, Ohrid, Beirut, and Guadalajara. It was a pleasure to spend some time with all of you in 2016.

The year that ends in a few days saw the growth of our profession in the healthcare and media fields, where we currently have more and better prepared professional certified interpreters than ever before. I also noticed the growth of our profession in Africa where our friends and colleagues held several professional events, and 2017 promises to be even better. And just this week we learned that, after many months, our Vietnamese court interpreter friends and colleagues in Melbourne, Australia Magistrates’ Court won their hard fought battle against the system and an opportunist contractor and are finally going to be paid a decent professional fee under favorable work conditions.

Unfortunately, not everything was good.  Our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States continued their fight against mediocrity and misdirected greed with SOSi, the contractor selected by the U.S. federal government to be the sole provider of interpreting services in all immigration courts of the United States. 2016 was the year when this contractor took working conditions and the quality of interpreting services to an all-time unprecedented low.  Some professional associations, individual judges, and attorneys have voiced their objections to this practices, but not much has changed. The war is far from over, and these colleagues should use the Melbourne Australia success story as a source of motivation.

Our colleagues in the American immigration courts are not alone in their struggle, the Workers’ Compensation Court interpreters of California, state-level court interpreters in New Mexico, and other court interpreters in some American east coast states are also fighting against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and others. Some European countries, like Spain and the United Kingdom, are under siege by governments that want to lower the quality of translation and interpreting services in the legal arena to unimaginable levels of incompetence.

Interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards and creating questionable certification programs, the multi-national language agencies continued to push telephone interpreting whenever, and wherever they can, offering rock-bottom per minute fees to the interpreters. A handful of translators attempted to disrupt one of the top professional translator and interpreter associations in the world because they refused to understand the legal system where the association was incorporated, wanted to advance a personal agenda, and in a way that raises deep concerns, attacked the association because of the national origin of its board. The year was also marked by many efforts to distract, and perhaps mislead interpreters and translators, through carefully crafted conferences, webinars, publications and other events where some renowned colleagues, for reasons unknown to me, addressed our peers with a new carefully planned tactic that consists on making interpreters and translators believe that the agency is on their side by softening the rhetoric, showing some cosmetic empathy, and advancing their low fee, low quality service agenda on a stealth way.

Of course, we also had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2016 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services. As you can see, much changed and much stayed the same. I choose to think that there were more good things than bad ones, but I continue to be aware of the awesome problems we still face as a profession from threats that come from without and within. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your learned lessons (good and bad) of 2016. I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

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.

U.S. Immigration Court interpreters’ other enemy.

October 18, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

About two months ago the California immigration court interpreters started a movement to force the hand of SOSi and the EOIR with the goal of achieving better work conditions, a professional pay for the services rendered, and to keep the authorities from hiring new interpreters and interpretation students for a lower fee.  This entry will not deal with the merits or the outcome of such movement. We will talk about the elephant in the room: the big obstacle to the professionalization of the interpreting services in American immigration courts that can be changed by the interpreters themselves.

I know that this blog entry will make some uncomfortable, and I do not like to do that. Unfortunately, my life-long effort to fight for the professionalization of interpreting does not allow me to keep silent. To me, that would be equivalent to betraying my own professional standards. I write this piece with respect and with no desire to offend, knowing that by the time some of you finish reading this article, you will feel offended. I only ask you to reflect on what bothered you, and honestly acknowledge, at least to yourself, that you are not really up to save the profession (as a true profession, not as a laborer’s occupation) in the immigration court arena.

For several years now, there has been a tendency to credentialize interpreters who provide services to the public, who perform a fiduciary function.  Because of the wide variety of languages regularly spoken in the United States, and due to the millions of people who do not speak English at all, or at least good enough to go through a legal or medical process, most efforts have been applied to the certification of Spanish interpreters, by far the most popular foreign language nationwide, and finding other solutions for the other languages.

Court interpreters had an early start and developed the federal Spanish court interpreter certification exam. Many States followed and the States’ Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification was born, later taking us to the current Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC).

Healthcare interpreters followed suit and developed two different interpreter certification programs (the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters: CCHI, and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters’ CMI program) both of them widely spread and recognized throughout the United States. Granted, the term “medical interpreter” to describe the functions of these professionals is less accurate that “healthcare interpreter”, and compared to the court interpreter certification federal and state-level exams, both healthcare certifications are way behind in content and degree of difficulty; but unlike court interpreter certification programs, healthcare interpreters have achieved something extremely valuable that court interpreters can only dream of: an examination administered by an independent entity, just like lawyers and physicians, instead of the uncomfortable government-run court interpreter programs that always raise the issue of the real conflict of interests when the entity certifying interpreters is the same one who hires them.

At any rate, healthcare interpreters in the United States now have a way to prove that they are minimally qualified to do their job, that they adhere to a code of ethics, and that they comply with continuing education requirements that will keep them current in language, interpreting, terminology, and medical issues. In other words, healthcare interpreters sitting at the table with court interpreters can now bring up their credential and feel at the same professional level than their legal colleagues, instead of having to give a speech about how certifications do not mean a thing, that it is working in the trenches that makes you a good interpreter, and that your field is so unique that no existing certification exam could test what is needed to work in that field.

Well, dear friends and colleagues, this takes me straight to a very real, and somewhat uncomfortable problem, faced everyday by immigration court interpreters in the United Stets: They have no certification program requirement to work in court, and for that reason, there is no way to prove a certain minimum level, thus allowing bad interpreters to work in the immigration court system for years.

Court interpreting is a highly skilled occupation that requires of a professional provider. By its nature, it is also a fiduciary function where a judge, attorneys, respondents and witnesses must trust the knowledge and skill of the interpreter who will speak throughout the proceedings while at least half of those present will not understand a word of what was said. It is an awesome responsibility that cannot be left to the paraprofessional or the untested.

Presently, all Article Three courts in the United States, at all levels (federal and state) have a Spanish language court interpreter certification program that includes minimum requirements to take the exam, passing a comprehensive and difficult test (at least at the federal level), observing a code of ethics, and (with the exception of the federal program) complying with continuing education in the legal, interpreting, and language fields to be able to keep the certification. These courts are part of the Judiciary Branch of government.

Immigration Courts are not a part of the Judiciary. They are in the Executive Branch of government and are referred to as Article One courts because of their legal basis in the U.S. Constitution. The thing is, my colleagues, these courts deal with societal, family, and personal values and interests as important as those heard by Article Three judges. They are courts of law that abide by a set of substantive and adjective laws.  For practical reasons, they operate just like any judicial court: there is a judge, there are parties (one of them will be the government just like in criminal law), there are witnesses, and there are attorneys.  Although the controversies are different, immigration proceedings also include a first appearance, motions hearings, a court trial, and a verdict. There is a burden of proof, rules of evidence and procedure, and the possibility of an appeal to a higher court (Board of Immigration Appeals). The fact that the terminology calls these hearings “master calendar”, “bond redetermination”, “credible fear”, or “individual hearing” does not make much difference.   The cases are as different from those interpreted in an Article Three courtroom, as a criminal case differs from a civil or a family law proceeding.

The skills required to interpret are the same as in any other type of court proceeding: There is a need for simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, as well as sight translation. Interpreters use equipment just the same (in fact, in many cases even the same brand), and the expected ethical and professional conduct of the interpreter is the same.

It is a fact that immigration court interpreters are disrespected by their client: the EOIR on a daily basis. There is no denial that they make little money, work long hours, and they do it solo, regardless of the complexity or duration of a hearing. It is also well-known that they are treated in humiliating fashion by being forced to jump through many administrative hoops that no other court interpreter will ever face, in part because they are subcontracted by a multinational agency that tries to keep control over the interpreters without physically being at the courthouse, but also in part because interpreters are not considered professionals, they are not acknowledged as officers of the court.

I firmly believe that the only way to earn the credibility they need so much, Spanish language (for now, and ideally all widely used language combinations later) immigration court interpreters in the United States must demand a court interpreter certification requirement to be able to work.  They need it for their credibility among their peers and with the public opinion.  Once they have a credential, together with a code of ethics and continuing education requirements, they will be in a much better position to negotiate with anybody.

Because immigration court is a federal matter, and the services provided by the interpreter are the same as the ones in all federal courts, I think that the certification they need to have is the already existing FCICE. It would be very simple, all they need to do is convince the EOIR of this need. The exam already exists, all these interpreters would need to do is register and take the test. Then, if both, EOIR and the immigration interpreter community think it is appropriate, there could be a short immigration terminology exam (although I don’t think it necessary just like current certified court interpreters do not need to test every time they interpret a different kind of hearing. Part of an interpreter’s duty is to get ready for an assignment and that professional obligation should be enough).  This would be the best way to demonstrate that their simultaneous, consecutive, and sight skills are at a minimum level to deserve that trust we discussed above. In fact, by getting EOIR to agree, immigration interpreters would have until the Summer of 2018 to take and pass the written portion of the federal exam, and then until the Summer of 2019 to take and pass the oral test. In the meantime, it could be agreed that those currently working would continue to do so until the Summer of 2018.

This solution would immediate put immigration court interpreters at the same negotiating level as their Article Three federal counterparts; In fact, it would benefit everyone: Currently federally certified Spanish court interpreters would consider working in immigration court as the pay would be the same (or almost), and newly federally certified immigration court interpreters would have the opportunity to broaden their professional horizons and work in federal courts.

Of course, this means that two things must happen: First, the certification exam cannot be a “Mickey Mouse test” like the ones offered to immigration court interpreters by multinational agency contractors; they have no scientific value and a very poor reputation. And second, immigration court interpreters need to understand that those who do not pass the exam must go, regardless of the time they have been a fixture at the immigration courthouse. Any other “solution” would defeat the purpose and discredit the credential. This, my friends, is the “other” enemy of the U.S. immigration interpreter: the bad interpreter who has never been able to pass a court certification exam, knows that they never will, and spend all their time and energy trying to convince others that certifications are worthless, exams are rigged, and that the only way to learn the profession in in the courtroom.  These people have to go away. They are like a cancer that is slowing down the progress of the rest of their colleagues.

To argue “unity” to protect and keep these individuals is misleading. Professional unity can only happen among professionals, and the individuals I just described above may be paraprofessionals but they are definitely not professional material. Imagine for one moment going to the hospital for emergency surgery and being told that the person who will operate on you has never taken or passed the Board, but has a lot of experience. Would you let this non-doctor cut you open?

I understand it is very hard to set aside our emotions and empathy for these individuals, but it is time to think of yourselves, your families and your peers. Unless you want to continue to struggle as an immigration court interpreter, you have to get certified. A decision to dodge the certification issue, or to settle for a lower standard of certification, because someone who cannot pass the test convinced you to support other options, will be a vote for the status quo, sacrificing the good ones to protect those who do not deserve to be there.

U.S. immigration interpreters under siege again.

August 23, 2016 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is not common that I write a blog entry hoping to be wrong, but on this occasion I hope I am mistaken. Let me explain:

2015 was a very difficult year for our immigration court interpreters in the United States. After decades of working with the same agency, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) granted their court interpreting services contract to a new contractor that is better known for their multi-million dollar contracts with the United States Department of Defense than for their interpreting services.  This new contractor: SOSi, won the licitation process by bidding lower than anybody else, and to keep the operation profitable for their stakeholders, they attempted to hire inexperienced interpreters and pay them extremely low fees under unimaginable work conditions.

The interpreters rallied against the newcomer’s offer, united like never before, and took to the social media, traditional media, and professional associations for support. The movement became quite strong and as a result of these actions by our immigration court colleagues and their allies, SOSi was left with no choice but to offer contracts to many of the more experienced interpreters under work conditions similar to the ones they were used to with the former contractor, and in many cases with the interpreters getting better fees than before. SOSi agreed to these terms and addressed some of the main concerns that the EOIR had about the way they were to offer interpreting services nationwide by hiring some of the support staff that had previously worked for the previous contractor: LionBridge.

At the time, it looked like SOSi got it and decided to do things the right way; unfortunately, their temporary contract with the United States Department of Justice was about to expire and they had to move quickly to turn that provisional contract into a permanent contractual obligation. To achieve their goals, once that interpreters, immigration judges, and public opinion subsided, they decided to go after the interpreters once again.

During the last few days, many immigration interpreters received an email from SOSi notifying them the following changes to their policy:

“…In the coming weeks, we plan to release a competitive Request for Quote (RFQ) to anyone who is interested in continuing to work on the program…”

In other words, in a few weeks, interpreters will have to bid for work at the EOIR, and assignments will go to the lowed bid.  Is SOSi going to pay its interpreters the same rock-bottom fees they had in mind a year ago when their master plan was derailed in part by their ineptitude, but mainly because the quality interpreters refused to work for such insulting fees.

I hope I am wrong, but as I continue to read SOSi’s communication, I detect a Machiavellian cleverness I did not see last year. Let’s read another segment of the same email:

“…In the meantime, we are issuing extensions to current Independent Contractor Agreements (ICAs) at the current rates.  You will have seven days to review and execute those extensions in order to be eligible to continue working on the program past August 31, 2016….”

The way I read the paragraph, and I hope I am wrong, I get the impression that SOSi is taking away from the interpreters the argument of “contracts with rock-bottom fees” by offering its current contractors a new contract under the same professional fees (incorrectly called “rates”).  By doing this, the Defense Contractor turned interpreting service provider, if questioned by EOIR, can defend itself arguing that their individual interpreter contracts contain the same terms as the prior contract, and that the interpreters who work for a lower fee than the one in their contract, do so by voluntarily participating in the “competitive request” process in order to get more work.  Of course, we can assume (from the contractor’s own words) that there will be very few assignments for those interpreters who do not participate in the bidding process. They will probably work only when nobody else is available.

Finally, SOSi’s communication states that “…The goal of the changes is to provide the best, most cost-effective service to the DOJ…”

Of course they have to watch these costs; that is an essential part of their contract with the government. The problem is that they also need to make a profit, and the more the better.  The question is: How can you increase your profit when your client (EOIR) will not pay you more? To me, the answer seems clear:  They will pay less to the service provider (the interpreter).

I could be wrong, but I do not believe that SOSi will pass on to the EOIR the “savings” from low-bidding interpreters on a case-by-case basis. Record keeping and reporting of these individual cases would be more expensive than simply paying the contractually agreed fees.  From the email, I understand that SOSi will get the same paycheck from the government, but their profit will go up from the money they will save by paying the interpreter a miserable fee.  The United States federal budget for 2017 shows an increase on the appropriations that go to the EOIR from 420 million dollars to 428.2 million.  There were no cuts, and in my opinion, even knowing that most of the EOIR budget goes to many other priorities, it is very hard to understand why SOSi would want interpreters to provide the same services for less money. (https://www.justice.gov/jmd/file/821961/download)

Dear friends and colleagues, I sincerely hope that my appreciations are all wrong and SOSi will honor the contracts, discard the “lower-bid” system that they seem to spouse, and things continue to improve for our immigration court colleagues; but in the event that I may be totally, or even partly right, I believe our colleagues will be better served by sounding the alarm and being in a state of alert and ready to act once again. There are just too many loose ends that require not just an explanation, but a public general commitment by SOSi not to go back to last year’s unsuccessful attempt to pay less for professional interpreting services. I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this issue, and if you have solid evidence (not wishful thinking) to prove my conclusions wrong, please share them with the rest of us.

Ignorance and negligence could kill a legendary interpreter program.

June 14, 2016 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Humans are reluctant to think that something that was very good in the past could end up as something very bad. It goes against our idea of making things better, contrary to our concept of progress. Unfortunately, it is too often that a bad situation manifests itself right in front of our eyes. Just think of Venezuela; once the best economy in Latin America with a bright future ahead, and now a sad story of poverty, government corruption, and hunger, where millions of bright good people suffer the consequences of incompetent decisions.

The interpreting world has had its share of cases where a good situation turns bad. Today I will share with you a tragic story that, without prompt and able action, could become the Venezuela of the interpreting world.  First, a word of caution:  The story I am about to share with all of you depicts an intolerable situation in a certain region of the United States, and it directly impacts a relatively small segment of our professional community; Nevertheless, the conditions that gave birth to this tragic scenario could easily happen again anywhere in the world, perhaps in your area, maybe in your professional field. In fact, I am sure that this is happening in other regions of the planet.  It is for these reasons that I invite you to carefully read this story, so you can learn how to recognize the symptoms, and find a way to take action defending your profession before it is too late.

This story has to do with court interpreting in the United States.  Many of you already know that court interpreting is the most common interpreting practice in the United States. It has the most interpreters, and it is the only specialization that has its own legislation at the state and federal levels.

For American standards, compared to other types of interpreting, court interpreting has a “long history” of regulations and professional standards in the United States. It goes back to 1978 when the American federal government passed the Federal Court Interpreters Act which required that Spanish language interpreters passed a certification exam in order to qualify for work in the federal court system. Soon after, several individual states followed the example of the federal government, and developed their own legislation to test and certify Spanish language interpreters who were going to provide professional services in that particular state system.  The first state to set its own system was California in 1979, followed by New York, New Mexico, and New Jersey in the 1980s. These efforts culminated with the creation of the (now defunct) Consortium of States where a majority of the states came together, combined resources, and developed a test that served as the basis to certify those Spanish language interpreters who met the minimum requirements to work as professionals in a given state judicial system. After the creation of the Consortium, individual states developed certification tests in other languages to meet the needs of their specific areas.  New York and California did not participate in the Consortium of States, but New Mexico and New Jersey became the “gold standard” for court interpreter certification at the state-level in the U.S.

Due to its history and traditions, New Mexico became a pioneer and a national leader in all court interpreter matters: A founding state of the Consortium, New Mexico was the first state to allow non-English speakers, who were American citizens, as jurors at the state court level, actively participating in the trial process and jury deliberations with the assistance of a court interpreter. It also developed a very important professional community of Navajo court interpreters, and considered all court interpreting services as one profession, for the first time bringing to the table, at the same time, all spoken foreign language, Native American language, and Sign Language court interpreters.  Other major landmarks in the history of court interpreting in New Mexico include being one of the first states to require continuing education to keep the certification current, having a state supreme court justice as an active advocate of quality standards in court interpreting, and it became the sponsor of the largest annual court interpreter conference for a state of its size.  In other words, New Mexico took some of the biggest names in the interpreting and translation conference world to its state so that the local professionals could benefit of these trainings at a very low cost.  New Mexico was the “gold standard” for other states and the quality of its court interpreters was recognized throughout the country.  It was at this time, when things were going the right way, that two events changed the course of this court interpreter program, and pushed it to the edge of the cliff where it started its current freefall: There was a change of the guard at the helm of the state program, and the federal government exercised its muscle to compel the states to comply with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Among them: the state’s obligation to give universal access to all services provided with federal funds, including all non-English speakers. All of a sudden, furnishing certified court interpreters in all criminal law cases was not enough anymore. New Mexico needed to offer interpreting services to all non-English speaking individuals who walked into a state government office.

The landscape changed. Due to his age and other personal reasons, the State Supreme Court Justice who had served the interpreting community as an advocate and unconditional ally for so many years, took a back seat and slowed down his pace; the person in charge of the administration of the state court interpreter program left, and even her very capable assistant of many years transferred to another government position. They were replaced by a newcomer with academic credentials but without court interpreting experience, and lacking the knowledge necessary to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of such a complex population and professional interpreter community.

The changes started almost immediately. Some of them were noticeable right away, others did not show their head in plain sight until many months later. The state government officials’ attitude towards the interpreters changed radically.  From the head of the Administrative Office of the New Mexico State Courts, to the language access services statewide manager, to the rookie judge (not a Supreme Court Justice anymore) who now actively participated in all interpreter issues that had to do with an entity created by the state called the New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee; policy, attitudes, and decisions began to change.  There would be no annual conference anymore; the conditions that interpreters had been working under for many years would be reevaluated to cut as much as possible; the cordial and professional relationship, based on mutual respect, that had existed for decades between the interpreting community and the state would now be replaced by a tough attitude where the difference in size and power would be clearly exercised by the big guy in the contractual relationship, now very willing to show its muscle in the event of a minor dissidence or difference of opinion; and the Civil Rights Act’s Title VI requirements would be portrayed as fulfilled by creating a less expensive sub-par category of paraprofessional quasi-interpreters, instead of fostering and promoting the growth of the interpreter profession, thus meeting the minimum standards of the Civil Rights Act mandate, which of course, would require more funds and a greater effort on the part of the state, including, but not limited to, the Administrative Office of the Courts’ active participation in the preparation of a budget to be presented to the state legislature where fulfilling the true mandate of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act would be a top priority for the judiciary, whose only reason to exist as part of the government, is to guarantee an administration of justice inclusive of all citizens of the state.  Of course, this would demand a different attitude by the state, with a judiciary willing to battle the legislature, and go to the United States Justice Department to denounce the State Legislature whenever it was not addressing the equal access to justice mandate. A very different attitude, especially when compared to… perhaps securing judges and bureaucrats’ salaries and then throwing everybody else under the bus.

I have been told by many interpreters in New Mexico that since the time this change of priorities took place, the state has switched interpreters’ minimum guaranteed periods of work, it has changed its travel policy to pay less to the interpreters, there have been attempts to include as part of the original contract, attachments that fundamentally change essential parts of the interpreters’ contracts after these agreements have been executed already; I have listened to stories of interpreters been disrespected at Language Access Advisory Committee meetings; the story of an interpreter whose certification was revoked for no reason, who later won a legal case to get the certification reinstated, but has been isolated by the state officials who have never let this person work in the court system again.  I have seen the abysmal difference between the quality of a certified court interpreter’s rendition, and the mediocre paraprofessional services provided by the so called “justice system interpreters”, and I have listened to the American Sign Language Interpreters who share the same concerns as their spoken language counterparts regarding the quality of video remote interpreting, and more importantly, the level of interpreting skills of those who may provide the service from out of state, perhaps without a New Mexico or federal court interpreter certification.  It is possible that the State of New Mexico has designed a strategy to justify its actions. Even though what they are doing is legal, and I am in no way suggesting that the state has violated any law; it is still wrong for the profession, wrong for the interpreters, and bad for the non-English speakers who need a professional certified court interpreter to protect their life, freedom, or assets

I know that many of our colleagues in New Mexico are fighting a very important battle to protect the profession and the true professional interpreter; many have retained an attorney to represent them before the everyday more aggressive attitude of the state officials, and many of them are refusing to sign a contract with the state, unless and until, the minimum professional work conditions that they are requesting, and constitute the minimum standards everywhere else in the civilized world, are met by New Mexico. Just like we did last year when we, as a professional community, backed up the efforts by our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States until SOSi agreed to better their fees and basic working conditions, let’s all be one once again and support our colleagues in New Mexico.

Finally, to our colleagues in New Mexico, I encourage you to talk to the State Bar and make all attorneys in New Mexico aware of the fact that the state is on the brink of destroying that tradition that made New Mexico the “gold standard” of court interpreting at the state-level in the United States.  Submit articles to the New Mexico Bar Bulletin for publication, even this piece. I could almost assure you that many lawyers are not even aware of the abysmal difference between real certified court interpreters and the individuals the state is furnishing for so many of their court appearances.  Make sure that your voice is loud all over the state.  I now invite you all to share your comments about this situation and many other similar scenarios in the United States and many other countries.

Are we protecting our profession? Part 1.

March 29, 2016 § 49 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Every now and then something happens in our profession that makes me wonder if we are truly doing what is best for all of us: individually and collectively as interpreters and translators.  In fact, this happened recently when I learned, like many of you, that the American Translators Association had revisited the antitrust legislation issue and had reviewed its policy.  As expected, ATA followed its traditional pattern of protecting the “interests” of the association over the interests of its individual members or the profession, and adopted a policy that clearly observes antitrust legislation as is, without questioning it.   It is not clear to me how the association arrived to this resolution to endorse everything the government wants, and is included in the legislation and case law, without first seeking a legal opinion from attorneys who disagree with the current antitrust laws or their interpretation by the government.  As I understand it, the mission of a professional association is to advance and protect the interests of its members and the profession they practice.  This can only be accomplished by assessing the current legislation as to its impact on those who it is supposed to protect.  I am convinced that a well-publicized campaign to get public comments from the membership, and seeking a legal opinion as to how to interpret the current legislation in the light most favorable to the interests of the individual interpreters and translators, which could have included proposed amendments to the antitrust legislation would have been fruitful and very successful.  Of course, it would have rocked the status quo where big multinational businesses, sponsors or members of the association, benefit from the current interpretation of the law and the association’s corporate policy, that leaves the individual members on an uneven field where they cannot talk about the insulting and sometimes degrading fees, or rates as these huge corporations refer to them, that are offered for their interpreting and translation services.

We all want to comply with the law, and nobody is suggesting that we break any legislation. On the contrary, we should always observe the law of the land, as these rules and regulations exist to protect the weaker members of society from the actions of those who are in a position to take advantage of them.  This does not mean that we should not question a legal precept when we believe that it is not advancing justice or protecting the weak.

Antitrust legislation was born in the United States in the latter part of the 19th. century when the legislator, first at the state level, and later at the federal Congress, saw the need to protect consumers from big business that at the time was acting as big conglomerates with “excessive” economic power according to the opinion of a majority of the citizens of the United States. The goal of the legislation was to regulate the conduct of business corporations by promoting a fair competition for the benefit of the consumer. Legislation such as the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the Sherman Act of 1890, the Clayton Act of 1914, and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 became the law of the land.  They were followed by more recent laws like the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 and the Celler-Kefauver Act of 1950. Ohio Senator John Sherman clearly explained the rationale behind this policy when he said that: “…If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life…” (Speech delivered in the U.S. Senate on March 21, 1890) The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with this spirit of the legislation when it referred to the Sherman Act as a “charter of freedom, designed to protect free enterprise in America” (Appalachian Coals, Inc. v. United States, 288 U.S. ({{{5}}} 1933) 344 [359]) Antitrust legislation goes against the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, but it is tailored under strict scrutiny to limit this right only as it protects the consumer from the voracious unscrupulous merchant. We have many examples of these businesses throughout the more than one hundred years of antitrust laws in the country: The mining industry, the automobile industry, and even the telephone industry are some of the examples that come to mind. In all of these cases we can clearly see the benefits of restricting commercial and industrial activities to avoid monopolies.  We do not dispute that, but the fact is that the world has changed and we now face a very different economic reality than the one faced by the antitrust legislator of the 19th. century.

Technological advances and the rapid growth of globalization have created a world with uneven realities and circumstances in many fields, including interpreting and translating. When applied today, the rules conceived to protect the weak from the powerful, provide shelter to multinationals like Capita, SOSi, and LionBridge who take advantage, with the blessing of some of our professional associations, of the legal ban to talk about fees and working conditions of professional interpreters and translators who are forced to negotiate with commercial, not professional, entities who take advantage of any circumstance they can use in their favor.

But it does not need to be that way, a careful reading of the law shows us that discussing fees and work circumstances is legal, as long as there is no agreement to fix a fee.  The problem is that, to avoid any possible discomfort, some professional associations adopt internal rules and policies where all mention of fees has been proscribed.  It is clear that there is a need for litigation, it is the courts, not the executive branch, who should decide if these 19th. century rules designed to protect the little guy from big business should apply to individuals who make a living from the practice of a professional service, not an industrial or commercial activity (despite the efforts by many to convince us of this model) who are constantly oppressed and taken advantage of by the big business of multinational interpreting and translation corporations.

Who is the little guy who needs the protection of the law under these circumstances? Professional service providers should not fix their fees for services offered to their individual clients: the consumers in this scenario; but there is a big difference between offering services to a neighbor or a store down the street where I live, and having to accept rock bottom fees from publicly traded entities who have a presence in fifty countries.  The court system needs to decide these cases, and if the decision is adverse, the legislation has to be changed. Not all legislation is good or fair; in fact, there are plenty of examples where we can see how the law created or enabled an unjust situation. Let us remember that not long ago the United States had legislation that favor slavery, or deprived women from the right to vote.  This is where professional associations are expected to act to protect their individual members and above all: the profession.

Perpetuating the present situation will not advance the profession, it will mutate it into some kind of involuntary servitude where the big guys will call the shots.  I now ask you for your comments, in the understanding that nobody is calling for violating current legislation, just to change what we have right now, and to opine about the role that a professional association should play when the profession needs to be protected from exterior forces who are trying to hijack it from the interpreters and translators.   Next week we will discuss the same topic from a different perspective: The professional associations and the battle against the professionalization of the interpreter.

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