The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that immigration judges must ascertain whether those facing deportation who speak English dialects also understand American English or require interpreters.
The ruling concerned the case of a citizen of Cameroon who speaks “Pidgin” English. The three-judge panel unanimously deemed it unfair for an immigration judge to refuse asylum to the individual, “B.C.,” when it was apparent that he lacked basic standard English fluency. As evidence of this, the judges cited 36 separate instances where a court reporter recorded his testimony as “indiscernible.”
“These failures resulted in a fundamentally unfair proceeding in which B.C. could not fully participate or advocate for himself in Pidgin English, his best language,” said Sozi Tulante, the attorney who argued the appeal for B.C.
B.C. was detained after fleeing to the U.S. in 2018 and applying for asylum and withholding of removal. He claimed that as a politically active Pidgin speaker, he would face persecution if he were deported.
At his first appearance before an immigration judge, B.C.’s records erroneously showed him as a citizen of Guatemala and the only available interpreter spoke Spanish. When he told the judge he was from Cameroon, the judge asked only whether B.C. needed a French interpreter or was “okay with English.” According to the 3rd Circuit, B.C., who did not have a lawyer, said he was comfortable proceeding in English.
At a hearing concerning the merits of B.C.’s application, the judge proceeded without asking if he needed an interpreter, and dismissed his claim that he wasn’t a fluent English speaker, at one point asking, “why would you have to practice English if that’s your native language?”
The judge deemed B.C.’s testimony inconsistent and ordered his deportation, which the Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed in 2019. On appeal, B.C.’s attorneys said the judge’s failure to determine the languages he speaks proficiently or supply an interpreter violated his right to due process.
The 3rd Circuit agreed, ruling that judges can’t assume that individuals who speak variations on standard English don’t require interpreters.
“Failing to provide an interpreter when needed makes meaningless a noncitizen’s right to due process,” Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro wrote. “And not making a threshold inquiry into whether an interpreter is needed, in turn, renders the right to an interpreter meaningless.”
Author: Wiessner, Daniel
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