The Trump administration announced today that they will end the practice of allowing in-person interpreters at initial court hearings for migrants and asylum seekers and instead will use recorded videos to inform immigrants of their rights, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The new protocol will impact court dates known as “master calendar” hearings, where judges meet with many migrants at once to inform them of their rights and schedule their cases. Immigrants attend the hearings to get a sense of what is required from them before their next appointment.
One Justice Department official told the Chronicle that the change was “part of an effort to be good stewards of [the department’s] limited resources.”
According to the Chronicle’s sources, the Justice Department announced the change at a training session last month.
The administration says this is a cost-saving measure, but immigration advocates worry the videos may lead to confusion about migrants’ rights, and could even make the process less efficient.
Under the new plan, a video will play in multiple languages informing immigrants of their rights, without an interpreter.
This presents an obvious problem: what if the migrants have questions? Well, they’ll be shit out of luck.
Another problem with this new model is ensuring that every language that migrants speak is covered by the video. Many migrants coming from Central America speak indigenous languages, with speaking no Spanish at all. Others are illiterate.
If an interpreter was needed, a judge would have to call on one who happened to be around, rather than one assigned to the hearing. It’s unclear what would happen if none are available.
Judges—that is, the people who actually run these courts—say the videos are a terrible idea.
“It’s a disaster in the making,” an immigration judge told the Chronicle, speaking on the condition of anonymity “What if you have an individual that speaks an indigenous language and has no education and is completely illiterate? You think showing them a video is going to completely inform them of their rights? How are they supposed to ask questions of the judge?”
The National Association of Immigration Judges, the union which represents immigration judges, also objected to the new policy.
“Interpreter cost is not a surprise cost—it’s an integral part of every case,” union President Ashley Tabaddor told the Chronicle. “If they actually look at the courts as a real court, they would never be dismissive of the role of an interpreter. But the fact that we are here and have these budget shortfalls means they have prioritized the budget in a way that is dismissive of the integral role of the interpreters, and reflects the flaw of having the courts run by a law enforcement agency.”
The overburdened immigration courts have a current backlog of almost 1 million cases, made worse by the government shutdown earlier this year and what the union says is a chronic lack of resources.
Judges told the Chronicle that even under the current system there are often misunderstandings. Immigrants sometimes believe incorrectly that after the “master calendar” hearing they are only to reappear in court if they have a lawyer. But regardless of whether they’re represented, failure to appear for their next hearing is grounds for deportation.
“You’re dealing with people’s lives,” Jeffrey Chase, a former immigration judge, told the Chronicle. “All kinds of crazy issues arise. Sometimes there’s a health issue, and you need to be able to communicate to find this stuff out.
“And also, people come in so afraid,” Chase added. “If they’re able to talk with the judge and realize, ‘This person is a human being and they’re able to work with me’—being played a tape reinforces this feeling that, ‘I’m dealing with this deportation machine.’”
Chase, like many others involved in the process, believe that the Trump administration’s interventions in the system hasn’t helped it become more efficient.
“You always hear the word ‘efficiency’ from this administration now, and it’s very infrequent that you hear ‘due process’ or ‘justice,’” Chase told the Chronicle. “There’s no longer concern about the balance. It’s totally efficiency-heavy these days, and I think it’s being decided by people who haven’t been in the court much and don’t understand the consequences.”