“Do not translate everything he says. Only translate the important parts.” We sat there in disbelief listening to this asylum-seeker tell us about the asylum officer who instructed his interpreter to determine for themselves what parts of the testimony were important to the asylum-seeker’s legal claim. Interpreters are not legally trained and this interview was the asylum-seeker’s opportunity to explain why he is afraid of returning to his home country and merits refuge in the U.S. He was silenced by this asylum officer - a U.S. government official.
Asylum-seekers have the right for their interviews and court hearings to be in their primary language. This asylum-seeker speaks an indigenous language and had been detained for months because the asylum office could not locate an interpreter who spoke his language. During these months, his interview had been rescheduled multiple times. The day of his interview, he quickly realized that while the interpreter spoke his language, she spoke a very different dialect. The officer told him they would not be able to find an interpreter who speaks his dialect, and that he needed to proceed with his interview or risk prolonged detention.
Throughout the interview, the asylum-seeker protested repeatedly that he did not understand the interpreter because of their significant differences in dialect. The interpreter even communicated the man's concerns to the unsympathetic and unbothered officer. To make matters worse, the indigenous language interpreter could only translate the individual's responses into Spanish meaning the testimony had to again be translated by a second interpreter into English – an unjust version of the child’s game “telephone”. When the triple testimony was taking too long, in the asylum officer’s opinion, he proceeded to instruct the asylum seeker to keep his answers short. In one of the most important adjudicative proceedings of his life, this asylum-seeker was forced to tell his story through an interpreter he did not fully understand and before an asylum officer who seemed to care only about achieving the formality of conducting an interview without fulfilling its actual purpose. He was robbed of any meaningful opportunity to have his case heard.
The asylum process, with its many layers of review and various adjudicators, may seem like a fair way to ensure asylum-seekers have the opportunity to make their case before the U.S. government. In reality, problems like the one described here and a concerning lack of accountability for immigration officials make this process one that can only be characterized as severely defective and routinely a miscarriage of justice. We have met with individuals who told us they felt rushed during their credible fear interviews because their officers imposed time limits on the length of the interview, forcing asylum-seekers to pick and choose which parts of their claims they could tell.
Yesterday, an attorney from our volunteer group represented a father seeking review of a negative credible fear determination before an immigration judge. Without any explanation, the judge arbitrarily denied her the opportunity to ask him questions or make a closing statement on behalf of her client. The norm for these hearings seems to be that immigration judges function only to rubber-stamp the decisions of the asylum officers. When an immigration judge affirms the asylum officer’s negative credible fear finding, an order of deportation is issued. There is a right to counsel, but there is no right to an attorney provided by the government during these proceedings despite their high-stakes nature. And while the law guarantees asylum-seekers certain substantive and procedural rights, these rights are meaningless without the ability or resources to enforce them. Although our immigration system is structured in a way that gives the appearance of justice, a closer examination of its institutions, personnel, and norms reveals the frightening reality that it is a system of pervasive injustice.
And yet, asylum-seekers will make the dangerous journey to the U.S. and sit for months in detention undergoing an adjudicative process riddled with shortcomings and violations. They do so because they hold a desperate hope for a safer life for themselves and their children, and a relentless faith in the belief that they too deserve justice from the world. Walking around the visitation room in Karnes, you will see many fathers and children wearing plastic, colorful rosaries around their necks. They have endured tremendous trauma and suffering, both in their travel to the U.S. and while being detained, yet their faith remains unbroken – holding onto hope for a better day.
During the week of September 10, 2018 four immigration attorneys from California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation volunteered with RAICES at a family detention center in Karnes, TX to provide legal assistance to detained fathers seeking asylum in the United States.
Throughout the week, the team shared their observations, experiences, and thoughts from working with these individuals and families.