Hundreds of interpreters working inside immigration courts throughout the U.S. say they haven’t been paid for services going as far back as November.
In interviews and correspondence with BuzzFeed News, the interpreters claim they have gone months at a time without pay or reimbursement for expenses, further straining an already tense relationship between the nation’s immigration court interpreters and SOS International, or SOSi, the company that was contracted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to provide interpretation services.
Last year, BuzzFeed News reported on interpreters who were refusing to sign SOSi’s contract, citing unacceptably low pay and poor working conditions.
“It’s horrible,” Stephany Magaña, a Los Angeles-based Spanish interpreter, told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday. “This is a dire situation nationwide.”
SOSi and the DOJ didn’t immediately return requests for comment on the pay allegations.
In a Jan. 15 email to interpreters reviewed by BuzzFeed News, SOSi said there were a number of issues on their end that caused delayed or incorrect payments. The email went on to detail new instructions on how to submit invoices.
“Once again, please accept our deepest apologies through this transition process and be confident that we’re doing everything possible to rectify the payment issues,” Claudia Thornton, program manager for SOSi, wrote in the email.
The DOJ uses a combination of 67 staff members and about 1,650 freelance interpreters to ensure that immigrants facing deportation understand the proceedings against them. In July, the Justice Department switched contractors, awarding a new contract for more than $12 million annually to SOSi, according to a database of federal contracts. The contract can be extended five years for a total of about $58 million.
Immigration courts are already overwhelmed, with a backlog of some 456,000 cases, an all-time high, keeping some immigrants in limbo for years. Interpreters have long been frustrated by their work conditions. Those interviewed by BuzzFeed News complained of low pay, inconsistent and often insufficient travel reimbursement policies, and a general sense of being undervalued given the importance of the work.
The disputes between interpreters and SOSi could have widespread effects on the country’s immigration courts, where less than 15% of immigration court cases were completed in English in Fiscal Year 2014.
“It’s not just about us but the people who are going to suffer are the respondents, the immigrants in these proceedings,” Magaña said. “What’s going to happen when they don’t have an interpreter there or don’t have a qualified interpreter in court?”
Magaña said she was paid last week for work she did during the first half of December. She knows of at least 1,000 interpreters nationwide who haven’t been paid and others weren’t being paid at the rates in their contracts.
“When I ask them when they’re going to pay me the rest of they money they owe me there’s no answer,” Magaña said. “Then they’ll ask me if I can tell them what days I worked and which cases. Why do I have to provide that information when they’re the ones giving us work?”
In other instances SOSi told interpreters the company lost their direct deposit information and asked them to resend it.
Magaña and other interpreters believe the issues they’ve had are a concerted effort by SOSi to remove qualified and senior interpreters from their roster in order to replace them with inexperienced and lower paid workers.
"We definitely feel that they're trying to undermine us and get us out of the picture so they can hire cheaper interpreters," Magaña said.
On Monday immigration contract interpreters sent a letter to SOSi demanding they be paid in a timely manner. They also asked that the Virginia-based company establish independent and peer-based methods of testing interpreters and that all interpreters have at least one year of experience in judicial setting.
The group is also concerned that SOSi may be outsourcing its qualification testing to an interpreting school. Placing interpreter testing and quality assurance oversight in the hands of the school would undermine transparency, the letter said. Interpreters are also concerned it would provide SOSi with a pool of less experienced but cheaper contractors.
Emails between among interpreters looking for information or venting depict frustrated employees waiting 42 days to get paid, putting off purchases, and struggling to reach someone at SOSi about payments.
A Korean-language interpreter in Los Angeles said they only received partial payments for their services and didn’t get a response from SOSi on the issue.
“I don't think I will accept any more assignments, even if they offer any assignments,” the interpreter said.
A California-based interpreter who mostly works at the Adelanto Detention Center but who travels to other states, said her car was stolen in December, but is reluctant to purchase a new one out of fear she wont be able to make payments.
“I for one, am the only breadwinner at my home. My husband is retired and not in the best of health,” she wrote to a work organizer in an email. “I never thought that I would have to deal with such trouble in my senior years.”
Diana Illaraza, a Los Angeles area Spanish interpreter, said initially some interpreters believed it was an isolated incident. It was only after they started to talk among themselves that they realized it was a larger issue. Especially if enough contractors stop working inside immigration courtrooms.
“For years immigration courts have fought a constant backlog of cases,” Illaraza told BuzzFeed News. “Without the interpreters cases will inevitably suffer a delay.”