Last December, the head of the immigration courts told all immigration judges to start using phone interpreters for any language but Spanish. The reason given was budgetary. Yet immigration judges and attorneys complain that telephone interpretation has serious drawbacks that can lead to unfair results. They also claim it is adding to the immigration court backlog.

One of the larger challenges the new policy is less in-person translation in Mandarin Chinese. In the past, immigration courts have generally had on-staff translators in both Spanish and Mandarin, the most common languages spoken by immigrant petitioners.

Another challenge is the influx of asylum seekers from Central America who speak a variety of languages. Last year, K’iche’, the language of Guatemala’s Maya people, was the 12th most common language in U.S. immigration courts.

Lack of or poor interpretation may be affecting case outcomes

U.S. law requires an interpreter to be present at any immigration hearing where the immigrant does not speak sufficient English. Yet the courts can’t always provide in-person interpretation, especially in the case of less-common languages.

But telephone interpretation is risky. Not only can it be almost as hard to schedule as live interpreters, but there are also connection problems that can mean missed words or misunderstandings. Also, court stenographers only record what is translated, so mistranslations become part of the record. What the immigrant actually said does not.

Phone-in interpreters aren’t always available

The Marshall Project says that the Justice Department maintains contracts with three organizations for both phone-in and in-person interpreters. When an in-person interpreter is requested, they are scheduled in advance and expected to show up in court by a certain time.

For phone-in interpreters, the process is less sure. Judges call the translation service at the beginning of the hearing and wait to see if an interpreter for the given language is available at that time. If no interpreter is available, it can mean waiting until they become available or rescheduling the hearing. That can turn a five-minute hearing into a much longer one or delay a simple procedure for weeks.

Limited translation options are worsening the backlog in immigration courts

According to the National Association of Immigration Judges, rare-language speakers are needed now more than ever. The recent directive to use phone-in interpreters puts budgets ahead of communication with immigrants.

“The bottom line is that we are supposed to be resolving immigration cases, and part of that is providing interpreters,” one leader of the judges’ association told the Marshall Project. “To micromanage the use of interpreters truly affects the ability of the judge to reduce this backlog and also meet their performance goals.”