Saying he was troubled generally by "a lack of concern" for the rights of immigrants who face deportation, a federal district judge on Monday ruled that all portions of proceedings in U.S. immigration courts should be translated into the language of the defendants.
Sandra Pettit, an attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, called the decision significant. At present, Pettit said, the policy in immigration court is to translate only litigants' comments to the judges and the judges' responses to litigants. She said that attorneys' arguments and objections and the judges' decisions generally are not translated.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge William P. Gray agreed with immigration lawyers that the current practice of failing to interpret everying said in court deprives individuals of their constitutional right to be present at the hearings, represented by counsel and able to confront and cross-examine witnesses.
Gray granted the plaintiffs a summary judgment on the issue in the case of El Rescate Legal Services vs. Executive Office for Immigration Review. The EOIR is an independent agency of the U.S. Department of Justice and administers the 21 immigration courts throughout the country.
Immigration courts often rule on "life-and-death" issues such as whether a person can remain in this country or be compelled to return to a war-ravaged homeland, Pettit said when the case was filed, so participants in immigration proceedings should have the full translation services that are available in criminal cases or federal civil suits.
The original complaint in the suit said the experience of trying to understand court proceedings and communicating through an untrained interpreter reduced one Salvadoran plaintiff to tears. Others in the suit, including Iranian and Central American refugees appealing deportation orders, blame errors in translation for the court's denial of their requests for political asylum and stays of deportation.
Judge Gray said Monday that he was "troubled by the lack of concern for the interests" of persons undergoing deportation proceedings. And Gray said he was "appalled" by the government's position that court interpreters serve principally for the creation of an official court record.
While limited in its immediate effect to the three immigration courts in Southern California--Los Angeles, San Diego and El Centro--"the ruling is of national significance since it is the first time a federal court has declared the present national policy to be in violation of the due process guarantees of the 5th Amendment and the Immigration and Nationality Act," Pettit said.
Pettit said Monday that lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case hope Gray's order will be implemented on a nationwide basis.
It is far from clear whether that will happen. Justice Department attorneys vigorously opposed the suit, arguing that it would create a significant and costly administrative burden on the immigration courts, stretching out the length of trials. Gray declined a government petition to delay his ruling pending appeal.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Ian Fan said he was not sure whether the Justice Department would appeal. He said that decision will be made by the solicitor general of the United States.
The suit was filed in March, 1988, by the Legal Aid Foundation, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services and Public Counsel, the public interest arm of the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills Bar Assn.
There is one issue remaining in the case--a challenge to the competence of the present immigration court interpreters. The suit contends that immigration courts "customarily employ interpreters . . . who are untrained, incompetent and ill-prepared to interpret proceedings." Government officials have denied that charge. A trial on this issue is expected to begin in early 1990.