Last week, USCIS announced a new rule for interpreters at Asylum Office interviews. Starting immediately, most asylum applicants should not bring their own interpreter to the interview, as had been the practice up until now. Instead, USCIS will provide an interpreter by telephone for most languages. The reason for the change is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. This new rule will be in effect until at least March 22, 2021.

There are a few interesting tidbits contained in the rule's preface, and here, I want to discuss those, as well as the effect of the new rule, plus some tips on working with telephonic interpreters.

One tidbit is statistical. To justify the new rule, USCIS cites some numbers indicating how serious the pandemic is. As of July 31, 2020, "there were approximately 17,106,007 cases of COVID-19 globally, resulting in approximately 668,910 deaths; approximately 4,405,932 cases have been identified in the United States, with new cases being reported daily, and approximately 150,283 reported deaths due to the disease." This grim assessment by the U.S. government itself seems largely at odds with the picture painted by President Trump, who has pretty consistently underplayed the severity of the pandemic (at least in public, if not to Bob Woodward).

Another interesting tidbit relates to the affirmative asylum backlog. Since the advent of the Trump Administration, the Asylum Office has become more tight lipped about its data, and so we receive fewer updates about the backlog (or anything else). But according to the new rule, as of "July 31, 2020, USCIS had 370,948 asylum applications, on behalf of 589,187 aliens, pending final adjudication." "Over 94% of these pending applications are awaiting an interview by an asylum officer." This means that as of July 31, the current affirmative asylum backlog was about 348,691 cases (meaning 348,691 cases were filed but not yet interviewed). Contrast this with the last time USCIS posted statistical information about asylum cases, which was for the period ending on September 30, 2019. At that time, the backlog stood at 339,836 cases. If all this data is correct (and I am never completely confident in the information we receive from USCIS these days), the backlog has grown by about 9,000 cases between October 1, 2019 and July 31, 2020.

If we believe these numbers, this means that the backlog grew faster in FY2019 than it did in FY2020. This may or may not be surprising, depending on your perspective. On the one hand, given that so few cases are being interviewed this year thanks to the pandemic, we might have expected the backlog to have grown more quickly. On the other hand, given that fewer asylum seekers are making it to the U.S., we might have expected the backlog to grow more slowly.

Finally, with regard to statistics, USCIS's numbers indicate that 22,257 cases have been interviewed and are awaiting a decision. This seems like a lot to me, especially since Asylum Officers are interviewing fewer people because of the pandemic, and you'd think they'd have more time to finish cases that have already been interviewed.

Turning to the new rule itself, basically it means that when you go to an asylum interview, the government will provide you with a contract interpreter, who will attend the interview by phone. According to the new rule, "contract interpreters are carefully vetted and tested [and they] pass rigorous background checks as well as meet a high standard of competency." In my experience, the contract interpreters are quite good, and I have never had a case where an interpreter caused a major problem. Prior to the new rule (and the coronavirus), applicants were required to bring their own interpreter, who assisted in person, while the contract interpreter monitored the interview by phone. Now, you are not allowed to bring your own interpreter, and you must use the telephonic interpreter.

Not all languages are covered by the new rule, but many are. USCIS contract interpreters are available for 47 languages. If your language is not on the list, you must bring your own interpreter.

If a contract interpreter is not available, the interview will be rescheduled and the delay will be attributed to USCIS for Employment Authorization Document ("EAD") purposes (meaning that the Asylum Clock will not stop). On the flip side, if the applicant refuses to proceed with a USCIS contract interpreter, the Clock will stop, which will delay the EAD.

The new rule raises a few concerns. Probably the primary concern is whether asylum applicants will be comfortable with their interpreters. Will a woman who has been the victim of gender-based violence be comfortable if her interpreter is a man? I have heard anecdotally (and I believe it) that Asylum Officers are sensitive to this issue, and will check with the applicant before starting the interview. Also, if you prefer a male or female interpreter, you might ask in advance by emailing the Asylum Office before your interview. My sense is that the Asylum Office will do its best to accommodate such requests.

Another concern is that telephonic interpreters cannot as easily understand the applicant (or the Asylum Officer) and may not be able to convey emotion or nuance as well as they might if they were present in person. While I suspect that this is true, I think it is unlikely that missing such subtleties will make a difference in the outcome. Also, given the pandemic and the need for social distancing, it seems to me that we all need to make some adjustments.

All that said, how can you best work with a telephonic interpreter? Here are a few tips from a star interpreter, who has herself performed telephonic interpretations--
  • Keep your voice loud and clear. While this is important when working with on-site interpreters, it is even more important over the phone.
  • If you have a long statement, pause after a sentence or two so the interpreter can translate your words. After the interpreter is done, continue your response.
  • Don’t shuffle papers as you speak; you might as well stop talking because the interpreter will not be able to hear you.
  • Try not to talk over other people. The interpreter can only translate for one person at a time. Over the phone, it will be impossible for the interpreter to understand what is being said if people talk over each other. This could result in a statement by the applicant going unheard by the Asylum Officer--with potentially disastrous consequences.
  • Wait for the interpreter to finish interpreting before making another statement or asking a question.
  • If you don’t hear or can’t understand the interpreter, speak up!

All good advice to keep in mind at your interview.

Overall, my sense is that this new rule is reasonable and will hopefully allow more applicants to start attending interviews, while keeping everyone as safe as possible.

Tip o' the fedora to Professor Lindsay M. Harris, Director of the Immigration & Human Rights Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia, and interpreter extraordinaire Maria Raquel McFadden, for their contributions to this article.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: