A few months ago taxpayers in the United Kingdom learned that the government and a private firm were trying to save money by providing sub-standard translation services for immigrants going to court. By signing a $300 million Euro contract with Applied Language Services, the UK government had actually saved money as opposed to if they themselves provided translation services. In March this became a huge controversy when the UK public learned that the government was “wasting” their taxpayer money on the inadequate service, and began protesting. Debates ensued on both sides: Immigrant right groups protested that immigrants should be given adequate translation services, and UK nationalists protested that none of their taxpayer money should be spent on translation services, and that they should pay for not being able to speak English.
Although the debate over translation services for immigrants is not a new one, there is a new trend arising in the United States over the translation services that local courts must provide to anyone in need of interpreting assistance. Courts like the one in Tigard, Oregon are cutting back on translation services not to only save money–but to make it.
A few weeks ago I followed two of my Iranian friends to a Court in Tigard, Oregon, where my friend (I’ll call him Ali) was challenging a ticket he got for his broken headlights. His story goes as follows: He had just bought a used car that his friend, who happens to be a mechanic, inspected and informed him that there was nothing wrong with it. A week later, he’s driving at night back to his house when a Tigard officer pulls him over. He told Ali that one of his headlights were not working, and gave him a warning. Ali continued driving home, and another officer pulled him over (shortly afterward) and this time gave him a ticket for his headlight. Ali couldn’t properly explain to the officer that he was on his way home and had just received the ticket literally minutes ago. After discussing with his friends, Ali decided to contest the ticket.
Ramin (pseudonym for the other friend), Ali and I go to the Tigard courthouse to change Ali’s “no contest” to “pleading not guilty” and to select a date for his hearing. The official behind the glass window noticed that Ramin was doing most of the talking for Ali, and asked if Ali would like an interpreter for his hearing, since Ramin cannot speak for Ali at the hearing. Ali accepted, knowing that an interpreter would allow him to better articulate his case and will give him a better chance of having the ticket excused.
I am not a fluent Persian speaker, and speak to Ali in English most of the time. He has taken ESL classes at a local community college for a few years now, and can manage on his own quite well. However, that does not mean he is prepared for the law jargon spoken at court hearings, and will undoubtedly have a disadvantage pleading his case to the Judge compared to native English speakers. Ali, who works a minimum wage job that hardly pays for his rent and classes cannot afford the $120 ticket, which is what brought him to court.
Today Ali and Ramin went to the Tigard Court to try to move the hearing date to another time, and there was a different person behind the glass window. She took one look at Ali’s file, and was immediately dismayed. She was shocked at for just a $120 car violation, that the city was going to hire a $200 interpreter for Ali’s hearing. Ali and Ramin agreed–for such a minor ticket that was based off a misunderstanding, the city shouldn’t lose money for it. However, the lady had a different take on it–there’s no way the court can make money off of Ali’s ticket as long as he has an interpreter. She is currently in the process of cancelling the interpreter for Ali so that the court has a chance of actually making money off of Ali’s ticket.
Any of you Oregon natives reading this article I’m sure will not be surprised–Tigard is known for its traffic cops who hide in bushes, hungry to give pricey tickets for the most minor of violations. This latest decision by the court to rescind Ali’s interpreter reflects how the state is willing to takeaway what many see as Ali’s right to an interpreter to give him a fair chance in court, in order to make money. Tigard is not the only city in the United States to take such steps. The only reason why it has gone unspoken is because of the little political rights immigrants have in this country to speak up–many just go ahead and pay the fine and to not bother with the hearing in the first place. The ones that do struggle to explain their side, and are won over by a fluent English speaking police officer familiar with the law jargon and protocols of the court. Ali, a refugee, is taking ESL classes, has many American friends who he practices his English with everyday–there will be a day where he won’t even consider an interpreter if he’s called back into court. But right now, with a $120 ticket and only a minimum wage job, he’ll need all the help he can get to have a fair shot at his hearing.