Interpreters all over the United States are refusing to sign up to a new contract with immigration courts, which they say offers poor working conditions and an unacceptably low rate of pay. This is despite such interpreters being critical to the basic functionality of the nation’s immigration courts.
“They’re keeping me from making a decent living for me and family,” says Florida immigration court interpreter Carmelina Cadena, who is fluent in a Guatemalan Mayan language that is extremely rare and highly sought-after. “It’s ridiculous.” Business is commonly conducted in languages other than English in immigration courts – less than 15% were completed in English last year – and the conflict between new contractor SOS International and interpreters puts the immigration courts’ ability to function in serious jeopardy and puts immigrants at increased risk of deportation.
“The translation can be absolutely critical in the success of a case, or whether someone ends up being deported,” says American Immigration Lawyers Association former president Laura Lichter. The Justice Department changed contractors in July to SOS International; however, interpreters all around the United States have rejected the terms offered by the new contract, with BuzzFeed News being told that at least 100 contractors have refused to sign. With 300 interpreters working almost every day for immigration courts, the unavailability of one-third of these workers when the new contract starts could be devastating.
Immigration courts are already feeling the pressure, with 456,000 cases backlogged. Work conditions have long frustrated interpreters, who feel they are undervalued, and the new contracts appear to have pushed many too far.