ACLU, Advocates Demand U.S. Government Reverse Policy that Discriminates Against Non-English Speaking Asylum Seekers

November 30, 2023 9:30 am

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WASHINGTON — A coalition of 100 advocacy organizations across the country sent a letter today to the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice demanding that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) continue to provide government-paid interpreters at asylum interviews for all individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) who cannot find or afford their own interpreters. After three years of using government contract interpreters during these interviews, USCIS abruptly changed its policy in September to require that people seeking asylum provide their own interpreters.

The letter was led by a coalition of groups working on language justice and emphasized that the government’s failure to provide critical language services in these life-or-death proceedings deprives non-English speaking asylum seekers of a meaningful opportunity to access the asylum process based on their LEP status and lack of financial means — factors that have no bearing on the merits of their asylum claims. In doing so, it directly infringes upon asylum seekers’ right to equal protection and due process. It also violates well-established language rights principles enshrined in the government’s own executive orders and language access plans.

“All people deserve meaningful opportunity to access the affirmative asylum process, regardless of what language they speak,” said My Khanh Ngo, a staff attorney with the Immigrants’ Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “USCIS’s policy reversal is illegal and counter to the government’s stated commitment to language access. Not only is it unfair, but it is also completely illogical to impose a burden on LEP asylum seekers to find their own interpreters when the agency is already paying contract interpreters to monitor these interviews. USCIS must heed advocates’ calls and reverse this baseless and unethical policy decision.”

During the past three years, USCIS allowed their contract interpreters to interpret during asylum interviews instead of requiring LEP individuals to bring their own interpreters. In justifying the policy during this time, USCIS repeatedly noted that it imposed no additional cost on the agency and promoted efficiency by avoiding delays that would otherwise result if asylum seekers were unable to procure adequate interpreters for their interviews.

Under the policy reversal, USCIS has returned to an inefficient and unfair system that will result in greater backlogs and unjust outcomes. If people seeking asylum are unable to find an interpreter to accompany them to their interview, or if their interpreters are incompetent, they risk delay of their asylum cases, a longer wait to obtain work authorization, and an increased chance of being removed, especially if the lack of professional interpretation resulted in misinterpretation and miscommunication.

“The result of this policy reversal is that asylum-seekers will be denied a fair process,” said Laura Murchie, senior supervising attorney, AAAJ-Atlanta. “The burden will be felt mostly by low-income individuals who cannot afford a professional interpreter, and become easy targets for exploitation by unscrupulous actors. Many asylum seekers are already vulnerable, having faced unimaginable harm in their home countries, and have fled with almost nothing. USCIS’s decision will cause even further harm to these individuals.”

The letter is online here.

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