Signal boosting: Inside Immigration Court

Thanks in part to Marcus, I’ve begun a process that questions many of the functions of the State that I take for granted, even if I am unlikely (or at least less likely) to be affected by most of them. Around the same time that I began this questioning, there was a particular term used by xenophobes on the topic of immigration–“illegal”–that began to strike a particularly unpleasant chord in me. Though written, it struck me as a venomous slur, something you spit at someone. Immigration, sovereignty, even the idea of the State–all these lofty ideals seemed to clash with the gritty details once you stop seeing people as immigrants first and human second.

It’s hard to stomach complicity in these ideas, because once you actually take the time to look, you notice the blood tribute they require. (Content Notice: Violence)

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.

You know, I’m kinda sick of talking about State apparatuses in the abstract. Fuck debate. Fuck playing with these human lives like they’re a volleyball. People are dying because of these unquestioned ideas.

I was never asked if I wanted to be a part of this.