Immigration Law

Immigration Courts Getting Lost in Translation

Joseph Darius Jaafari, The Marshall Project, Mar. 20, 2019

"Migrants often speak languages that are little known in the U.S. (except maybe in New York City): K’iche’ from Central America, Urdu from Pakistan, Creole from Haiti. American immigration judges have a hard time finding enough interpreters to show up in courtrooms.

Now the Justice Department has ordered the judges to use more translators who work over the phone because of what the agency says are budget problems. But judges and lawyers say the quality of the telephone translations suffers and may be leading to unfair deportation trials.

The head of the immigration-court system emailed judges Dec. 11, telling them to use phone interpreters for languages except Spanish, according to leaders of the National Association of Immigration Judges.

The spokeswoman for Chief Immigration Judge MaryBeth Keller did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the email.

Federal law requires an interpreter be present for an immigration hearing whenever a defendant does not speak English. The courts typically have staff translators for Spanish and Mandarin, the two most common foreign languages they deal with.

But in the past five years, more and more immigrants have been coming to the U.S. from Central America speaking uncommon languages such as K’iche’, used by Mayan people in Guatemala. Last year it was the 12th most frequent language spoken in immigration court, just behind French.

“There might only be literally a couple dozen of people anywhere in the U.S. who speak this language that 20,000 people in the world speak,” said Scott Shuchart, co-author of a report by the left-leaning Center for American Progress on language access for migrants.

Because there are so few translators for these languages, interpreters are hard to find and mostly available only over the phone. But dial-in interpretation is often inadequate, because the translation services are hard to schedule and the quality of the telephone connections can be poor, critics say, adding that these problems are worsening backlogs in immigration courts across the country.

“The bottom line is that we are supposed to be resolving immigration cases, and part of that is providing interpreters,” said Mimi Tsankov, an immigration judge in New York who is a leader of the judges’ association. “To micromanage the use of interpreters truly affects the ability of the judge to reduce this backlog and also meet their performance goals.” "