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Asylum seekers must now provide their own interpreters. Advocates say that's impossible

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Wednesday, February 21, 2024 - 10:47am
Updated: Wednesday, February 21, 2024 - 12:53pm

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Late last year, the Biden administration reverted to a Trump-era rule that requires asylum seekers who don’t speak English to provide their own interpreters for their asylum interviews. But, Ariel Koren says, for many migrants — especially those being held in detention centers around the country while they await their hearings — accessing a translator can be nearly impossible. 

Koren is founder and executive director of Respond Crisis Translation, the only full-service language access collective in the country.

They’re a network of 25,000 translators who provide oral and written translation support to asylum seekers nationwide. And, she told The Show, this rule change has broad impacts — and is part of a broader system of challenges for asylum seekers. 

Ariel Koren and Respond Crisis Translation team
Isa Mejía
Ariel Koren and Respond Crisis Translation team

Full interview

ARIEL KOREN: The requirement that affirmative asylum applicants must provide their own interpreters as of Sept. 13, 2023, is cruel and unusual. It is a true violation of the basic human right to language access and to communication.

I mean to put into perspective what this means for asylum seekers: Most folks who are impacted by this have fled from unspeakable violence. And so these folks are in the majority of cases in a detention center and then are expected when they have no access to resources and to networks to provide their own interpreters. So without having the money to pay for an interpreter, without having the networks to know for an interpreter, they're told that in order to go through the interview, which everyone must go through, in order to apply for asylum, they need to bring their own interpreter to that interview.

And the United States government says that if you need an interpreter and do not bring one or if the interpreter you bring is not fluent in English, then this will be considered a failure to appear for your interview and your asylum application will be dismissed. It is essentially impossible for people to be able to source their own interpreters.

I mean, the irony of this whole thing is that the communication to people that they need to bring their interpreters is in English to begin with. So folks are not even aware that they need to bring their own interpreters to these interviews.

I want to back up for a moment just so people understand like what is it that interpreters traditionally do, like in an asylum case? What kinds of things are you handling?

KOREN: Yes. So at Respond Crisis Translation, we work across a variety of different contexts. But the majority of the cases that we take are for folks who are seeking asylum. So that means that we intervene kind of across different junctures of the asylum process. We support folks who are experiencing the violence and trauma of the carceral system from within detention centers. We provide oral interpreting so that folks can communicate with attorney activists and build out their asylum case, fight for liberation from detention.

And then we also translate the asylum applications themselves, which are hundreds and hundreds of pages long. Big packets full of evidence that folks are forced to put together without any sort of subsidies or help to prove to the government that they're worthy of being granted asylum. And the government provides no translation support but requires that all asylum materials be submitted in English and that all asylum interviews with adjudicators happen in English, in spite of the fact that almost no one who's seeking asylum comes having any sort of proficiency or fluency in English or any experience communicating in English.

Let me ask you. So some people must be getting around to this. How are asylum seekers maybe who are released back into the community or those in detention able to get around this? I mean, you mentioned like lack of access to telephone or internet services. Like are there avenues like organizations like yours that are trying to fill the need?

"The government is weaponizing language as a tool to keep asylum seekers from being able to have access. That is what is happening here."
— Ariel Koren

KOREN: So what we do is that we plug in for exactly this reason because it's more than just that the government is failing to provide a service. It's, I want folks to see beyond this idea that what's happening is that the government is telling people they have to provide their own interpreters. It's much worse than that. The government is weaponizing language as a tool to keep asylum seekers from being able to have access. That is what is happening here.

And so at Respond Crisis Translation, what we do is we intervene in the systemic language rights violations in order to support folks. So folks will reach out to us at different parts of the asylum process in order to request our support in translating asylum applications, in communicating and trying to understand what's happening in the asylum system, and that is where we'll intervene.

We have to date translated over 53,000 full asylum cases and provide over 13,000 hours of phone interpretation for folks who are seeking asylum and navigating other systems. But in some cases, folks who reach out to us have unfortunately only been able to reach out after they've already had to suffer the violence of these language rights violations and had to experience the negative outcomes inherent in these language rights violations.

Recently, one of our clients who had fled from Afghanistan and had submitted her entire asylum affidavit, had her asylum case rejected after the United States government refused to provide an interpreter for her and instead forced her to rely on a machine translator and the machine translator. And the machine translator mistranslated all cases of the pronoun I to the pronoun we, and as a result of these mistranslations, her entire case was full of inconsistencies, and the judge was able to use these in these linguistic errors and inconsistencies to justify denying her case.

And in these cases, luckily, these folks were able to reach out to us and access resources and the translators on our team were able to review the cases and to spot these language rights violations and intervene. And in the end, we were able to file for appeal and ensure that these folks were able to ultimately be granted asylum.

I want to ask you lastly like this is this is coming in this moment when we are seeing the immigration system be completely overwhelmed, the asylum system in particular, be completely overwhelmed in a way that we've really never seen before. What does that mean for the situation is this exponentially worse because of the situation we find ourselves in?

KOREN: Absolutely, there are over 1.3 million unprocessed asylum claims in this country. And at Respond Crisis translation, I mean, we are a network of 2,500 talented translators working in over 180 languages. So we ourselves are evidence and testament to the fact that this is not a crisis of talent. There is not a deficit of talent in this country to provide quality translation and interpretation. This is a deficit of funding and economic justice.

Under the Biden administration, there is a new policy that every single asylum seeker is now required to initiate asylum claims using an app, a mobile app which is called the CBP one app. This app is extremely glitchy. It is translated into only five languages, and it is completely unintelligible in Haitian Creole. It's full of typos, it's full of mistranslations. For example, the word customs and customs and border patrol is translated as the word that means tradition, that type of custom. I mean to give you an example of the degree to which this app is impossible to use.

And so asylum seekers are essentially being told that if you are unable to make sense of completely unintelligible gibberish, utter mistranslation, then you are not gonna be allowed to seek asylum. So it is truly a cruel form of language deprivation where we see that language is used at every single juncture of the immigration system to make access to asylum, close to impossible for asylum seekers who are already facing insurmountable barriers.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Ariel Koren's name. 

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