US Executive Office for Immigration Review & Lionbridge: Immigrant Justice Under Threat?

Read the Department of Justice’s 21 February 2013 non-response to the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators plus excerpts from the National Association of Immigration Judges draft memo on “full and complete”



EOIRThe courts and the US Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) hire interpreters to ensure that immigration respondents understand what is happening to them and are able to speak for themselves during court proceedings. Interpreters are necessary to guarantee due process and ensure that justice is served.

For the past several months, the EOIR and its contracted agency, Lionbridge, have been discussing changes to the way in which interpreters work during EOIR hearings.

The crux of this change is this: Currently, consecutive interpreting has been the only form of interpreting used in EOIR hearings. In consecutive interpreting, one person speaks, then the interpreter interprets, and so on.

Under proposed changes, however, the EOIR plans to require interpreters to provide simultaneous interpreting (the interpreter interprets in “real time” while others are speaking) for the entire length of the hearing, including during evidence numbering; discussions on and off the record between attorneys, judges, and other parties; unrelated comments; questioning of English-speaking witnesses, etc.

What is more, simultaneous interpreting is now to be performed alone, without a partner or colleague present. (Consecutive interpreting will continue to be used, as always, for the questioning of witnesses with limited English proficiency.)

Negative reactions from interpreters and their professional organizations throughout the country initially caused those changes to be postponed. Despite protests, however, it now appears that these new practices will, indeed, be implemented starting in May 2013.

Simultaneous interpreting is an extremely complex mental task, requiring concentration far beyond what most people ever experience.  It has been compared to working as an air traffic controller.  Like air traffic controllers, simultaneous interpreters work in pairs, or they may work in groups of three or four, switching off every twenty to thirty minutes.

Since the 1940s, studies have repeatedly suggested that the human brain has a finite capacity for performance at this level.  This is not a question of skill or experience – even the highest-level conference interpreters at the United Nations or European Union do not work longer than thirty minutes at a stretch because accuracy drops dramatically beyond that point.

After forty-five minutes, concentration is so compromised that interpreters no longer even realize they are making mistakes. EOIR hearings, on the other hand, can stretch on for four hours or even an entire day in some cases.

Additionally, the presence of colleagues is essential to ensuring accuracy and precision.  They serve as an immediate and invaluable source of assistance should the interpreter who is “on the mike” need it.  While “off the mike,” colleagues are constantly checking and monitoring the performance of their fellow interpreters.

Working longer than thirty minutes at a time in simultaneous interpreting is against professional ethics. If interpreters are so mentally exhausted that they cannot monitor what they are saying, or if they must work alone, no one can ensure that questions and answers are interpreted completely and accurately. Interpreters already bear a heavy burden in any legal proceeding – one mistake or misunderstanding, and a respondent may find him or herself wrongfully deported or detained.  

If interpreters are unable to perform their difficult and essential task under appropriate working conditions, egregious miscarriages of justice will clearly result. Interpreting errors also carry an enormous cost to the courts themselves in the form of the massive appeals that result from poor interpreting during hearings and from severely compromised due process.

The very real threat of proposed changes between the EOIR and Lionbridge is that the promise of due process and the guarantee of justice will fail and that interpreters will be forced to work under conditions that render their oaths impossible to carry out.

Meanwhile, attempts at communication with EOIR and Lionbridge have been met with resistance and dismissal or with vague, evasive answers. It appears that the new policy simply aims to have a warm body in the interpreter’s seat next to the respondent at EOIR hearings. We say that’s not enough to ensure justice.

We hope that language service and legal professionals, as well as those working with immigrants, will recognize the seriousness of this issue. We would be happy to answer any questions or respond to any comments you might have.

In the meantime, please take action. Contact Lionbridge and the EOIR. Learn what else you can do to get involved. Understand why immigration justice may be in danger at the US Executive Office for Immigration Review.


Sonja Swenson
Susan Schweigert
Alessandro Giua
Connie Verzak

Further information:

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