TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — Though the Trump administration touts its immigration stance as zero tolerance, criminal illegal entry cases are dismissed daily because interpreters are not available in defendants’ native languages.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which tracks more than 1,500 “Operation Streamline” cases a month in Tucson Federal Court, are seeing three to six dismissals daily out of roughly 75 cases. The problem is mostly with indigenous Mexican and Central American languages, though African and Asian languages sometimes arise.
All attorneys in Streamline, or fast-tracked, cases speak Spanish and English, said Saul Huerta, a private immigration attorney who represents Operation Streamline defendants.
“If there are people who don’t speak those languages, they [prosecutors] don’t have interpreters ready to go that day,” Huerta said. Unless the defendant has a criminal record beyond illegal entry, those cases are routinely dismissed and the defendants deported without charges, Huerta said.
Billy Peard, an ACLU attorney in Tucson, cautioned against extrapolating what’s happening here to the seven other Streamline courtrooms, but unofficial tallies show 4 percent to 8 percent of cases are dismissed in Tucson.
The Streamline defendants, many of whom were caught entering the U.S. just days before their hearings, plead guilty to one charge of illegal entry, a petty offense. The maximum penalty is 6 months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Many defendants are sentenced to time served, but defendants with previous illegal entry convictions or nonimmigration criminal records face more time.
The process is speedy. Federal public defenders or private attorneys on contract are assigned to each defendant in the morning each day, and usually 75 defendants have pleaded guilty and been sentenced by 4 p.m. A hearing with seven defendants takes less than 10 minutes.
The swift process makes it impossible to have interpreters available for languages other than Spanish, because most have to work over the telephone.
One Guatemalan indigenous language has just two court-approved interpreters, both of whom live in California. The millions of Mayas in Guatemala speak a number of languages, including Yucatec Maya, Kekchi, Mam, Kanjobal, Chol and Tzeltal. Indigenous people of Mexico also speak numerous dialects of distantly or totally unrelated language families, including Mixtec, Zapotec and Nahuatl.
Sometimes the scarcity of interpreters forces prosecutors and defense attorneys to use the same interpreters, Huerta said.
Pay is also an issue. Interpreters are paid less when they work with defense attorneys under contract than when they work with federal public defenders, which prompted one attorney recently to continue a case because he was having trouble finding an interpreter who would work for the offered rate.
The pay for interpreters dropped by 30 percent three years ago, when the company handling the interpreter contracts changed, said University of Arizona interpreting and translation Professor Jaime Fatas, who worked in a Streamline court in 2013-14.
Conditions are tough, Fatas said. There is little time to ensure accurate translation, and the work often happens in crowded rooms with dozens of people talking. The conditions and low pay drive freelancers away, he said.
“Under these circumstances, helping clients and attorneys discuss complicated matters, including charges and legal options … is nearly impossible,” Fatas said.
About five of Huerta’s cases are dismissed weekly, and although the number has risen with the number of prosecutions, it’s still a small number, he said.
“It’s kind of a mess when it happens, but it really doesn’t happen very often,” he said.
The U.S. District Court in Tucson did not respond to requests for information about Streamline interpreters.