Stories From A Sanctuary City Courtroom

By Idalia Long

As an immigration court interpreter, how much have I been complicit in a broken system? How much have we all been?

Editor’s Note: We have verified this court interpreter’s job and experiences, but to protect those involved, we’re concealing names and have changed some identifying details.

The courthouse is a little run-down, with scuffed linoleum floors and walls the color of eggnog. I navigate hallways teeming with lawyers, uniformed guards, and families speaking every human language.

I work as a contract Spanish interpreter in a Sanctuary City, and this warren of stuffy immigration courtrooms is my world.

When I enter my assigned courtroom and find it nearly empty — two attorneys, a young female respondent, and Judge K on the bench — my stomach twists. I never know what kind of case I’m walking into, but a room this quiet isn’t usually a good sign.

I arrange my tools at the interpreter’s stand — dictionary, notepad and pens, transmitters and receivers for simultaneous interpreting — avoiding eye-contact with the respondent whose voice I will carry. Overt friendliness could be misconstrued; interpreters must be neutral.

A room this quiet isn’t usually a good sign.

We practice what’s called fictional invisibility. The object is to convey what is said without influencing it. I am a conduit, a medium, the opposite of a personality.

The respondent — I’ll call her “M” — is short, maybe 5'2”, with smooth cinnamon skin and almond eyes. She wears acid-washed stretch jeans, a striped cotton T-shirt, and off-brand sneakers. Her hair is pulled back with a frayed scrunchie. Nothing about her appearance is flashy.

Judge K swears me in, and M’s attorney begins direct examination. I’m using the consecutive mode, which means waiting for the speaker to pause before interpreting what she has said. Question, translation, answer, translation; if this were a tennis match, I would be the net. I scribble furious notes to retain long statements. M speaks Spanish with a clipped accent — her first language is a Guatemalan dialect of Mam — and her voice is so faint that I have to ask for several repetitions.

The judge, respondent’s attorney, and DHS attorney flip through files thick with declarations, police reports, and other paperwork. But the interpreter flies blind. It’s a surreal process of hearing the story while telling it, understanding words only as they leave my mouth. I never know what I’ll say next.

Though at first I take copious notes, my brain soon kicks into another gear, and I no longer need them. Falling into the story, I unconsciously assume M’s mannerisms.

“I was working in the kitchen with my sister,” we say, “when the men came.”

“Did you know these men?” her lawyer asks.

“They were wearing black masks, like hoods. They came in a truck.”

“How many were there?”

“I don’t know, I was running.”

M and her sister dashed out the back door, and managed to escape into the maze of coffee bushes blanketing the hill behind their house.

The next week, M’s sister vanished from their home. “Se desapareció,” she says. “From one moment to the next. The door was wide open and she wasn’t there anymore.”

M begins to cry. Her lawyer hands her a box of tissues and asks if she wants a break. “No,” M says. “I want to finish.”

My focus intensifies. Whatever is coming next, I need to get it right. A great translation cannot fix a bad case, but a poor translation can destroy a good one.

M’s family searched the coffee fields and woods for several days. “Cuando por fin encontré mi hermana,” M says quietly, “se había hecho en pedazos.”

I pause for several seconds, though it feels eternal with everyone waiting. Is M speaking figuratively, as in, When I finally found my sister, she’d gone to pieces? Or is her statement literal, the worst case scenario?

In a sane world, it would be the former.

But a world in which hundreds of thousands of people are apprehended at the southwest border each year — including a growing number fleeing poverty and violence in Central America — is not sane. I’d already gathered from the attorney’s soothing mannerisms that this case would get dark.

“When I finally found my sister,” I say into the microphone, “she’d been chopped into pieces.”

If I’ve gotten this wrong, even if the error is my fault, it will make M’s testimony seem unclear.

“Your Honor,” M’s attorney says, “I’d like to direct your attention to photos I’ve submitted from the crime scene.”

“Oh, I’ve seen them,” Judge K says. “They’re quite graphic.”

When it becomes clear that I’ve chosen correctly, I feel only relief and professional pride at having nailed a challenging translation. In court, emotions stay in the box.

The horror of what I’ve said won’t hit me until later, when I get home and my husband casually asks about my day. Then I’ll fall apart.

Convinced that the hooded men would come back for her, M fled the plantation, first to a relative’s house where she borrowed a little money, then across Mexico and into the U.S. At 17, she found a cheap room and a housekeeping job, and began her new life as an undocumented immigrant.

Only about half of the asylum applications made are granted. For M to win protection, her persecution has to be provoked by her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. M’s lawyer argues that she was targeted for being indigenous. It’s a scenario we often encounter here. But M doesn’t know who the hooded men were or why they came. She has no proof that the violence was race-related.

You might think that fleeing to escape dismemberment would be enough, but it’s not.

General crime doesn’t count.

Gang violence doesn’t count.

Strangers in black hoods don’t count.

While studying for my interpreter certification exams, I learned to retain long statements word for word, and to interpret simultaneously, in real time. I memorized thousands of words, from complex legal terms to obscure regional slang. Nothing in my training prepared me for the nightmares I would give voice to in these courtrooms.

Nothing in my training prepared me for the nightmares I would give voice to in these courtrooms.

Asylum claims are complex and difficult to win. Building a successful case can take years in the hands of a good lawyer. Our immigration system is overburdened, sluggish, inefficient. There are too many immigrants and not enough resources. But each immigration case is an expression of a life. Eleven thousand illegal immigrants, and each one has arrived through a unique set of circumstances. What if we sweep them all away?

We can’t deny the humanity of others without losing our own.

Another day, another courtroom. I set up at the interpreter’s stand beside the judge’s bench. Judge P clicks on the Video Teleconferencing (VTC) system. People who are released, either on their own recognizance or on bond, come to court in person, but detained immigrants are beamed into the courtroom on TV like Max Headroom.

The detainee on screen — I’ll call him “L” — has expressive eyes and a neatly trimmed mustache. He wears a green, jail-issued sweatsuit. “Buenas tardes su Señoría,” he says. “Gusto de verlo de nuevo.”

“Good afternoon, Your Honor,” I translate. “Nice to see you again.”

L’s composure suggests education, perhaps high school or better. This is an important clue, as it will help me choose the correct register — more formal.

I don’t know how L landed in ICE custody. We do see some murderers and rapists, but most people are detained for relatively minor offenses, like petty theft, drug possession, or a DUI. You could be stopped for a traffic infraction and get popped for driving without a license.

An undocumented immigrant is never allowed to drive with a busted taillight.

If the changes proposed by Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly in his February 17 memos take effect, immigrants won’t even have to be convicted of a crime to land in ICE custody. A simple accusation will be enough.

If the changes proposed by John Kelly take effect, immigrants won’t even have to be convicted of a crime to land in ICE custody.

During preliminary questions, I learn that L’s teenage son and daughter, sitting in the gallery facing us, are 13 and 17. They are both strikingly attractive, with expressive eyes like their father’s. The daughter, the older sibling, wears Merlot-colored lipstick.

L’s attorney questions him about his fear of returning to his home state in Mexico. The Templar Knights, a ruthless cartel controlling the region, murdered his brother in-law and two cousins. His lawyer submits death certificates and a news article about the cousins’ double-homicide to back up his claim. When L began receiving telephone death threats, he fled to the border, and since he’d already been deported in the past, he snuck in, and got caught.

When L says he is positive he’ll be killed if he’s sent back, his son begins to cry. The sister silences him with a look.

What’s it like, I wonder, to hear your father say he expects to be murdered?

During cross-examination, the DHS attorney attacks L’s credibility; this is his job.

When L was apprehended near the border, he told officers that he’d crossed in order to work — not that he was running for his life. Only later did he claim fear.

“Why would you lie to an immigration officer?” the DHS attorney asks.

“Because I was afraid.”

“Let me get this straight,” the DHS attorney says, “You were more scared of the immigration officer than the Templar Knights?” He smirks, makes eye contact with the judge.

There’s no good answer to that question, nor to the series that follows.

L explains that, where he’s from, the Templar Knights control the police, and talking to cops is the fastest way to get killed.

“You thought the border agent would report you to the Templar Knights?” The DHS attorney laughs.

“I got scared,” L says.

“And you’re someone who lies when you’re scared.”


“So you weren’t lying?”

And so forth.

L’s case crumbles.

The DHS attorney accuses L of crossing the border not out of fear, but for his family. “Isn’t it true that you wanted to raise your kids?” He points at them when he says this.

The daughter with the wine lips turns toward the bank of windows, whose view opens onto a brick wall. She swallows hard.

L admits that he loves his children more than anything, and I watch his lawyer hang his head.

The DHS attorney really goes after L — grilling him, confusing him with sarcasm and rhetoric. I feel embarrassed, but there’s nothing I can do. I took an oath to translate precisely. So when the DHS attorney is snide, I must be snide. When he uses his superior education to make L look foolish, I make him look foolish. And when L answers poorly — when he is contradictory or vague, when he shoots himself in the foot — I answer poorly.

The kids’ eyes burn holes into my face.

I sneak a tight smile in the vain hope that it will communicate compassion. Of course it falls flat, and it was inappropriate anyway. I focus on the words. The best I can do for this family is to give them a clean translation.

Cross-examination drags through the afternoon. On a bathroom break, I hear sobbing in the stall next to mine, and I know it’s the daughter. I feel sick. I’m dying to tell her that it wasn’t me calling her dad a liar, that I had no control over what I said. But it would be extremely improper and what difference would it make? It’s selfish of me to want her understanding.

It’s selfish of me to want her understanding.

At 4:30, Judge P interrupts the questioning. “We all have lives, right?” he says. “Let’s pick this up next week.”

The daughter and I reach the elevator bank together. Her eyes are puffy from crying. I offer that idiotic, tight smile again. I feel like an asshole in my suit and high heels — the uniform I wear to look like I belong in these halls of law. Notice I do not say justice. My experiences here have convinced me that our legal system isn’t about justice at all, but rules, rhetoric, and procedure.

I can see the daughter isn’t thrilled about sharing an elevator, but I don’t want to insult her further by taking the next one.

“Lo siento,” I say stupidly on the way down, “es una situación dura.” I’m sorry, it’s a tough situation.

She gives me side-eye, says nothing.

My experiences here have convinced me that our legal system isn’t about justice at all.

I tell myself my role is positive. Immigrants who don’t speak English need language experts to help them communicate. But by participating in these hearings, taking a neutral stance, do I tacitly condone them? If I believe it’s wrong to tear families apart, should I quit? And if I quit, will I be any less a part of it?

By which I mean, aren’t we all part of this?

The new regime may build a giant wall, but the immigrants will keep coming. They will come over the wall and under the wall. Because fear of violent atrocities is worse than fear of deportation. Because family ties are stronger than legalities. Because by the time a teenager has found her sister’s mutilated body in a hole, there is no going back.

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