Immigration Law

EOIR to Limit Interpretation at MCH?

Hon. Paul Wickham Schmidt, July 1, 2019

"No, it isn’t as dramatic as pictures of drowned families and caged toddlers. But, the effects of the latest move by those running our U.S. Immigration Courts and their political handlers could turn out to be just as deadly. Judges and interpreters were shocked by EOIR’s recently announced truncation of the right to receive effective live interpretations during master calendars as well as more management-ordered “aimless docket shuffling” which both denies due process and artificially “jacks up” already overwhelming backlogs.

How important is master calendar? It’s where individuals make their initial appearance in court and are advised about their right to a lawyer, procedures for obtaining pro bono counsel, given warnings, plead to charges of removability, seek bond if detained, have possible relief from removability explained, file applications for relief like asylum, have hearing dates and filing deadlines set, learn the DHS position on applications, have current address confirmed, receive DHS fillings, make and receive rulings on preliminary motions, and receive warnings as to the dire consequences of failure to appear and meet filing deadlines, to name just some things that go on. In other words, “important stuff.”

What happens when non-judicial politicos interfere with judges’ individual case scheduling and docketing by setting artificial limits on when and how they use interpreters? Cases that have been rescheduled numerous times over the years get “moved to the back of the bus” once again.

Individuals and their lawyers faithfully show up for their long-awaited individual “merits” hearings, sometimes after having traveled hundreds of miles, witnesses and families in tow, only to be informed by a clerk that their cases have been taken off the docket without notice for the “convenience of the agency” and will be rescheduled for some unspecified later date. Evidence goes stale, memories fade, witnesses become unavailable, lawyers move on to other jobs, and country conditions change as these cases drag on literally forever because of political meddling and management incompetence. Perhaps worst of all, these same politicos and bureaucrats engineering the delays and backlogs attempt to shift blame to the victims and judges by limiting legitimate continuances, “expediting” cases that aren’t ready to be heard, and dishonestly calling for totally unneeded restrictive changes in the law.

Ostensibly, the truncation of interpretation resulted from mismanagement on the part of these same politicos and bureaucrats who hired additional judges in a hurry without planning for those judges’ support needs, including in person interpreters. And, take it from me as someone who spent thirteen years on the immigration bench and heard thousands of cases, “telephonic interpretation” is not by any means the equivalent of “in person” interpretation Indeed, at some point, I found the process for telephonic interpretation so time wasting and inadequate, that I just stopped using it. But, that was way back when individual judges had at least a little control over what happened on their dockets and what was necessary to achieve due process in an individual case.

More likely, this move is just another step the intentional “dumbing down” of the immigration court process and the systematic dismantling of what little remains of constitutional due process for those pleading for their lives in a system doing its best to “tune them out.” It will result in more illegal removal orders.

However, these will be hard for appellate courts to detect upon review, because they might not be readily apparent from the English language version of the transcripts. Besides, some Article III courts have also abandoned their duties to the Constitution in a mad rush to “rubber stamp” as many defective removal orders as possible to “clear” their own overcrowded dockets at the expense of integrity, fundamental fairness, and quite frankly, innocent lives.

So shocking has become this “under the radar” further de-professionalization of what disingenuously holds itself out to be a ”court” that readers have been sending me anonymous comments from some distraught individual professional court interpreters. Here’s what one such concerned interpreter had to say (edited to preserve confidentiality);

“Bottomline, no more in-person interpretation for master calendars. In addition, in-person interpreters will be assigned in three-hour blocks only. Judges will no longer be allowed to have two languages in one hearing. I think this means no more relay interpretation between indigenous languages and Spanish. I’m concerned about language access being curtailed.”

These further disgraceful developments, showing a complete disregard for legal norms and individual fairness, should be carefully documented in congressional oversight hearings with an eye toward a future independent Article I immigration court. In the meantime, the Article III courts could and should put a stop to this travesty and force the system to meet at least minimal standards of professionalism and due process pending needed legislative reforms.

No American citizen would want to trust him or herself to this parody of a court system. Yet, due process under our Constitution applies equally to “all persons,” not just citizens, and the stakes in these cases often are life or death. If we refuse to defend the rights of the least among us, who will stand for our rights when the forces of oppression shift their ugly gaze? Even exalted, yet too often complicit, life-tenured Article III judges should be asking themselves that question."