No longer able to bring interpreters to application interviews due to fears about the pandemic, asylum seekers must now work with interpreters provided by the agency.
In a temporary final rule, US Citizenship and Immigration Services says that for the next 180 days it will provide contract interpreters to asylum seekers who are speakers of Spanish and 46 other languages who come in for affirmative asylum interviews. Put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the rule will be in effect from Sept. 23 to March 23, 2021.
“By providing telephonic contract interpreters, the risk of contracting COVID-19 for applicants, attorneys, interpreters, and USCIS employees will be reduced by requiring fewer people to attend asylum interviews in person,” the agency’s new regulation states. “In addition, it may alleviate an applicant’s challenge in securing an interpreter (and) USCIS may be able to conduct additional asylum interviews because there will be more physical office space that will not be occupied by interpreters.”
Previously, asylum seekers without English literacy were expected to provide an interpreter, and affirmative action hearings would be rescheduled should the petitioner fail to do so. The process could extend the wait period considerably for the petitioner.
With the rule change, petitioners can still bring in self-appointed interpreters if their native language, but only if the language does not fall on the list of 47, which include languages from Farsi to Somali and Haitian creole.
The affirmative asylum hearing includes an in-person interview and the filing of a paper application with USCIS. The hearing takes place after asylum seekers have arrived at a port of entry to seek protection from persecution in another country.
To ensure quality services, contract interpreters undergo background checks and competency tests. Furthermore, some of them already provide screening interviews at the border, monitor interpreters brought in from the outside, and occasionally jump in during affirmative asylum interviews, as needed, the federal agency says.
Migrant advocates in El Paso said they welcome efforts to protect their clients’ health as long as their due process is not affected.
“I think it’s positive for the people that we serve. It’s a good move to provide these contract interpreters that are paid for by the government,” said Linda Rivas, executive director for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. “I would like for them to take it a little bit further because here the attorneys have not always been successful in getting access over the phone. That is something we are interested in.”
Rivas urged not just USCIS, but all federal agencies that deal with immigration matters, to look into expanding their technology to include videoconferencing.
“While we know nothing replaces one-on-one contact on this situation, out of an abundance of caution I think all government offices that deal with immigration, including USCIS, should really be looking at video accessibility that would help counsel have better access to their clients,” she said.