DOJ farms out deportation court translations to lowest bidder; justice suffers

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Throughout the United States, courtroom interpreters are declining to sign contracts to work in immigration courts, due to what they claim to be unfair labor conditions and low pay. One immigration court interpreter, Carmelina Cadena, said regarding the unjust wages, “They’re keeping me from making a decent living for me and family. It’s ridiculous.”

In 2014, less than 15% of cases in immigration courts were conducted completely in English.  SOS International, the new contractor for interpreters, is reporteldy hindering the function of immigration courts and putting immigrants that are under threat of deportation in more difficult situations.  

A former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Laura Lichter, went on to say, “The translation can be absolutely critical in the success of a case, or whether someone ends up being deported.”

Because immigration courts are part of the executive branch, they are administered by the Department of Justice.  The DOJ officially made SOSi their contractor in July.  

There is currently a backlog of roughly 456,000 cases in immigration courts.  This keeps many immigrants in limbo.  According to an article in BuzzFeed News, interpreters have complained about their low pay and lack of respect for the importance of their work.  The interpreters claim that these poor working conditions will lead to the hiring of unqualified people, that would ultimately hurt immigrants facing deportation.  

Cadena said that she was making more than the usual interpreters because of the rarity that she can translate English into the scarcely spoken Guatemalan Mayan language of Akateko.  She received $412 for a 7-hour work day, or roughly $59 an hour.  She was able to support her three sons and unemployed husband with that rate of pay.  

SOSi has offered her $46 an hour for the first two hours and a lower rate for each additional hour.  Cadena has said that many of her coworkers that speak more common languages have been offered far less. Cadena said, “People are saying, ‘I should just go get a job at a factory — I can’t survive on that’.”

A Spanish interpreter from Texas, said that he was offered between $30 and $35 for the first two hours, with pay decreasing by the hour.  “It just seemed really odd that, the more you work, you actually make less money.”

Former AILA president, Laura Lichter, has said that judges rely heavily on an immigrant’s spoken testimony in determining whether they have grounds to be granted asylum.  The bargaining for cheaper interpreters is deeply hurting the chances of immigrants being allowed asylum.  

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice won’t comment on SOSi’s employment practices, except to say that “the past performance of vendors was evaluated during the competitive process.”

An interpreter who works with Spanish and French-speaking immigrants said, “I pay my rent with my immigration court job.  I’m looking, very quickly, for whatever other alternatives I can find, because I don’t like what’s coming.”