Trump administration ending in-person interpreters at immigrants’ first hearings

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing to replace in-court interpreters at initial immigration court hearings with videos informing asylum seekers and other immigrants facing deportation of their rights, The Chronicle has learned.

The administration portrays the change as a cost-saving measure for an immigration court system bogged down under a growing backlog. But advocates for immigrants are concerned the new procedure could jeopardize their due-process rights, add confusion and potentially make the system less efficient by causing more of them to go underground or appeal cases.

The Justice Department informed the nation’s immigration judges of the change last month at a training session, multiple sources familiar with the situation told The Chronicle.

At issue are “master calendar” hearings where immigration judges meet with undocumented immigrants, usually dozens of them, in rapid succession to schedule their cases and to inform them of their rights. The quick sessions are intended mainly to be sure the immigrants understand what is happening and know when their next hearing will be and what steps they need to take in the interim.

Under the new plan, which the Justice Department told judges could be rolled out by mid-July, a video recorded in multiple languages would play, informing immigrants of their rights and the course of the proceedings. But after that, if immigrants have questions, want to say something to the judge or if the judge wants to confirm they understand, no interpreter would be provided.

Many of the immigrants come from Central America, but collectively they speak a diverse range of indigenous languages and sometimes don’t know Spanish. Immigrants from all over the world also come before the court system, which is run by the Justice Department.

The shift would especially affect immigrants who do not have attorneys to explain proceedings. Many immigrants lack representation at the initial hearing, and legal services around the country say they are being stretched thin. The government does not provide attorneys.

By Tal Kopan for SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
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