This article was published in The Brownsville Herald on May 4, 2020.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of a Cameroonian asylum seeker detained in Los Fresnos, Texas alleges the man was not provided access to a translator in a language he understood during a credible fear interview and a subsequent review hearing before an immigration judge.
M.P.C., who arrived at a port of entry late last year, learned from a fellow detainee who reviewed his case notes that communications with both the asylum officer who conducted his credible fear interview and an immigration judge had been incorrectly translated. “He was aghast that the notes indicate he did not know his date of birth, and even more so at the indication in the notes that he did not know the names of his children (names, which incidentally, appear on the Credible Fear Worksheet),” his attorney wrote.
M.P.C. speaks Akum and has a “reasonable good command” of pidgin English and some command of French. He can sign his name, but is not literate in any language, according to the complaint. The man requested asylum in December was detained at the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, Texas before his transfer to the Port Isabel Service Processing center in Los Fresnos. When he was interviewed by an asylum officer on Jan. 2, the official provided him with a French interpreter. M.P.C.’s attorney wrote the officer’s notes “seem to indicate the interpreter was on the line before [M.P.C.] was asked if he was comfortable doing the interview in French.”
The attorney cited documents describing repression by the Francophone government of current president Paul Biya, elected in 1982, sparking “increasingly organized opposition” in Cameroon that eventually evolved into armed conflict between militias advocating for a separate Anglophone state. Cameroon has two official languages – French and English. “Very few speak both languages with any degree of fluency; some speak neither,” the complaint read. “Given the situation in Cameroon, one would not assume a person seeking refuge from Cameroon would be Francophone.”
In the complaint’s footnotes, the lawyer explained she asked her client “why he did not ask for an interpreter in Akum…or even in pidgin English. He said that he did not think anyone in the United States would speak Akum or pidgin English and he agreed to the French interpreter he was offered.”
According to the document, there was “no indication” her client was asked during his credible fear interview whether he preferred to use English. “He was presented with a French interpreter – a very odd choice given the situation in Cameroon – and asked if he was comfortable proceeding in that language. Assuming that there were no interpreters in the United States able to interpret from Akum..or pidgin English to English, as [M.P.C.] acquiesced,” she wrote.
“The use of French in the interview resulted in miscommunication and misunderstanding. We do not know how extensive, since no recordings are made available.”
M.P.C. was informed of a negative finding of fear on Jan. 7, in Spanish, and his case was referred to an immigration judge for review. His attorney wrote her client “will testify that he does not speak Spanish”.
The man’s case was reviewed by Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Hugo R. Martinez until Jan. 31, with a French interpreter. During the review hearing, Martinez allegedly asked the man if French was his preferred language, but the question was never answered, as M.P.C was concerned the interpreter had stated his name incorrectly. “This was corrected,” his attorney wrote.
“The interpreter did not always interpret the immigration judge’s questions to [M.P.C.] or his responses accurately. [M.P.C.] did understand some of the immigration judge’s question in English, and tried to respond in English, with the interpreter repeating the English.”
M.P.C. did not, however, understand Martinez’s decision to uphold the asylum officer’s findings and order him removed.
According to U.S. law, a prompt review of an asylum request by an immigration judge must be completed within 24 hours, “but in no case later than 7 days after the date of the determination. The document further alleged that when an asylum officer concluded M.P.C. was eligible for a “reasonable fear” determination – extending the review deadline to 10 days – based on an interview where the man was not given the opportunity to identify which language he was comfortable using.
Reasonable fear interview interviews are generally conducted in cases involving foreign nationals apprehended inside the country, non-permanent residents, those convicted of an aggravated felony, or foreign nationals “illegally re-entering” after removal and precludes the return of individuals to a country where that person’s race, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion would threaten that person’s life or freedom.
Attorney General William Barr created the notion of “reasonable fear” interviews by joining the expedited removal process with two other sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act, according to the attorney. “Congress, in the asylum statute makes no reference to, and thus does not define a “reasonable fear interview” or when such a creature might be applied. Congress clearly intended that foreign nationals who were found to have no actionable fear of persecution or torture by an asylum officer were to have expeditious and rapid recourse to review by an immigration judge, stating unambiguously that such a review ‘to the maximum extent possible’ should be concluded within 24 hours, but it must be concluded within 7 days.”
“What is clear is, first, that Congress did not make a distinction between ‘reasonable fear’ and ‘credible fear’ interviews for those individuals who came to a port of entry and expressed fear; and second, that Congress intended those individuals…to be given a rapid review of any negative finding by an asylum officer,” she wrote.
Martinez didn’t have jurisdiction for the review, the attorney argued, as it took place well past the permitted seven and ten-day deadlines. “In the case of [M.P.C.], the review went well beyond the regulation’s permitted ten days for the review, and no ‘exceptional circumstances’ were identified. The statute makes clear that the review by an immigration judge of an asylum officer’s fear findings shall be done expeditiously – not when it was convenient or when it suited the Department of Justice. In the case of Mr. Chi, it took more than the permitted 7 days..and two-and-a-half times the 10 days the Attorney General allowed.”
“The proper action was to vacate the decision of the asylum officer, return the case to DHS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement to issue a Notice to Appear to [M.P.C.]”