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Lawyers Are Furious That Immigration Courts Are Getting Rid of Interpreters

The change could mean many immigrants will be left in the dark during their own hearings.

by Mary Retta
Jul 25 2019, 4:13pm

Photo by Raymond Forbes LLC, via Stocksy. 

The Trump administration has begun taking steps to eliminate in-person interpreters from "master calendar” hearings, the first appointments that migrants have in immigration court meant to inform them of their rights, next appointments, and required preparation. Instead, immigrants will be shown an orientation video with subtitles then have the potential to use a telephone interpreter.

The Department of Justice announced the change to immigration judges in June, citing a desire to increase efficiency, and were set to begin the week of July 15th, starting with courts in New York and Miami, according to Buzzfeed News. As of now, all videos have been recorded in Spanish, although there are plans to expand the program to include twenty other commonly requested languages in the near future. Sources told the San Francisco Chronicle that the orientation video was confusing and difficult to understand, and many experts fear that the change will have a detrimental effect on immigrants’ ability to defend themselves in court—or even understand what’s happening to them—all in the name of cost-cutting.

“This orientation won’t help anyone at all,” said Claudine Murphy, an immigration attorney at the Immigrant Justice Corps, a national organization that provides legal services to immigrant families. “A person can watch one of those videos, but when they show up for a hearing and the judge asks them questions, they will still be unable to understand or respond.”

Under the new mandate, immigrants will be unable to ask questions of judges during court proceedings unless they happen to have a bilingual lawyer. Judges are also allowed to try to track down an interpreter in the court house who happens to be in the building, or use telephone interpreting service that judges told the Chronicle can be “woefully inaccurate and substantially delayed.”

While some lawyers, like Murphy, are fluent in a second language and are able to explain court proceedings to their clients as they happen in real time, many cannot. For many clients, interpreters are vital for understanding court proceedings, especially those who are not yet represented by an attorney. According to immigration attorney Natalia Morozova, clients in immigration court who are unrepresented are already far less likely to make their court dates, and this is often because they do not understand what is going on.

“In the more than 15 years that I’ve been going to court with clients, I can count on both hands the number of cases that have been done entirely in English,” said Morgan Weibel, the Executive Director of San Francisco’s Tahirih Justice Center, a non-profit focused on aiding female migrants and refugees. “Right now, about 95% of our clients in removal proceedings require interpreters. It’s hard enough for non-lawyers to understand the legal jargon that is used in court settings, so imagine having to do that in a second or third language.”

This new policy follows several recently implemented migration laws such as the Migrant Protection Protocol and changes to asylum legislation, both of which make it more difficult for migrants to enter and stay in the U.S. Many are concerned that removing in-person interpreters from master calendar hearings will have the same affect.

“Individuals in court no longer have a meaningful opportunity to be heard because they literally can’t be,” said Murphy. “This is a severe due process violation.”

Murphy is not alone in her assertion that getting rid of adequate interpreters in immigration court would be unconstitutional. Many have pointed to Executive Order 13166, a rule passed in 2000 in order to improve access for people with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). The order, backed by the United States Department of Justice, requires federal agencies to identify any need for LEP services and to subsequently develop and implement a system to provide those services so that LEP individuals have meaningful access to them. In getting rid of in-person interpreters in immigration court, some are concerned that LEP individuals no longer have the rights they have been promised by the U.S. government.

“Thousands of people will be denied a fair hearing,” insists Michael Wildes, Managing Partner of Wildes and Weinberg PC, one of the country’s oldest immigration law practices. “Some person will be sent back to a country where he or she will be hurt, murdered, or tortured, simply because they didn’t understand what was going on. This is adding more chaos to an already chaotic situation, one in which people are literally dying. The government is acting unconstitutionally.”

While the Department of Justice has yet to make an official comment, internal emails obtained by Buzzfeed News confirm that many immigration judges are not on board with this new measure.

In the midst of the uncertainty that this new measure brings, Murphy offered some ways that American citizens can help.

“Unfortunately, civilians cannot volunteer to be court interpreters,” she said. “However, people can and should support organizations that are pushing back against these regulations through federal litigation, or organizations that provide services to people who are going to immigration court for the first time, such as the New Sanctuary Coalition.”

Morozova agreed. “Vote,” she said. “We all need to vote. Migrants need our support now more than ever.”

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