There are few linguistic assignments that are as emotionally charged as interpreting in the asylum office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. During the dozens of asylum interviews I have interpreted, I felt myself each time a witness to life-altering events, transported from the modern luxuries of Chicago to places in Africa where political affiliations can be death sentences, and ancestry determines fate.
The Chicago asylum office just recently moved to new digs. The waiting area is more spacious but more sterile. Gone are the pink painted walls, the plastic potted palm and the box of toys in the corner to keep the kids entertained. The security measures are more sophisticated as well, with an airport-style conveyor belt for scanning bags and a walk-through body scanner. They are manned by the same security guard who, previously stationed in the hallway outside the old offices, would pass the hand-held detector under our raised arms and down into ladies’ handbags.
First, the asylum applicant must show the mailed invitation form, then have fingerprints recorded and a picture taken at a reception desk. Right from the get-go, I see my client’s anxiety level rising. Many of my applicants must have endured a similar processing with imprisonment, and this administrative formality seems to trigger an innate fear of Government, even when it is not their own.
Next, when our number is called – anonymously, like at the Customer Service desk at Wal-Mart - we are escorted into the office where the “non adversarial” interview is to take place. Our identification papers (the applicant’s passport, my Illinois driver’s license) are taken for photocopying. We are asked to stand and swear an oath as to the truthfulness of our statements and the accuracy of my translation.
The asylum applicant and I sit side by side before the large desk of the interviewing officer. The desks are all the same: cherry wood – as if George Washington’s cherry tree is to be commemorated in all administrative furnishings. The polished desktop is nearly bare, except for the applicant’s file, a computer screen and keyboard. The interviewing offices seem intentionally denuded of any personal touch, as if by Official Memo: no photos, no knick-knacks. There is an intentional anonymity to the whole scenario, despite the intensely personal event about to take place. Some asylum officers even forego the computer and take all their notes in longhand, which seems to add to the tense drama of the moment.
The applicant is told that the interview will remain completely confidential and that no information can be communicated back to the home country. This declaration is universally met with some emotion: either a sigh of relief or a look of suspicion.
The applicant’s past and fears are examined here, in detail. Some interviews last more than three hours. One applicant I assisted was done in fifteen minutes, having neglected to file for asylum within the twelve month deadline following her arrival in the U.S. Working as a French-English interpreter, my asylum applicants are all African. For a while, my business card was making regular rounds in Ohio, of all places, among refugees from Niger. I eventually assisted enough interviewees to recognize differences between Hausa, Zarma and Tuareg tribal members. I was surprised the day I saw the name “Touareg” in gleaming metal on the rear end of a new Volkswagen crossover. Did the suburban Mom at the wheel, with her tribe of children strapped into the car seats in the back, realize that her vehicle bears the name of a once-wandering matriarchal people whose lives are forever changed by drought, violence and mining in the desert?
Few asylum applicants have the means to engage an attorney. Just filling out Form I-589 (Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal) is a challenge that many applicants often take on with the shaky help of a local countryman, perhaps someone they met in their neighborhood, possessing uncertain mastery of English. The first part of the asylum interview is devoted to reviewing the responses on the I-589. Like a school teacher, the officer breaks out a red pen and begins correcting the responses on the form. I have told my client before the interview that this is normal, that no one gets it right on the first attempt, and any changes made do not impact the decision of the office. I don’t think, however, that I always convince them.
All interviews almost always begin with confusion about even the most basic question of “what is your name?” Only in the States do we give our first name when asked that question. The rest of the world responds with a surname, and then offers a given name as a second option. I have never heard an officer ask directly “What is your family name?” which would resolve the problem.
Although I never meet my asylum client until as little as a half-hour before the interview, I try to provide some simple coaching in that time.
I emphasize strongly to the applicant to “ONLY answer the question you are asked!” The interviewer has a sequence of events to explore and verify and it is unproductive to unwittingly wander off of the subject. Despite my counseling, the applicant invariably will take off on a tangent that subsequently inspires a whole new line of questioning. This is often the result of heavy emotion and/or lack of education. I try to make it simple by using this example:
“If the officer asks you: do you own a dog? You can answer: yes. If you answer: yes, I have a poodle – you are still OK. But if you answer : yes, I own a dog and a cat and I have a giraffe in my back yard and the neighbors complain that he eats all the leaves off of their lilac bushes… Then you have opened up a whole new set of issues that you are going to have to explain.”
So many times during interviews, I have had the urge to fake a cough or a sneeze that sounds like “geerrraffffe” to bring the applicant back to respecting the line of questioning of the officer.
Another huge problem is the correct recollection of dates. Applicants frequently get all sorts of important dates wrong: the date of their wedding, the date of hospitalization for torture injuries, the dates of their arrival in the U.S., the dates of the birth of their children, the dates they enrolled in school… all seemingly critical to proving the credibility of their case. And yet, I think the human mind intentionally obscures memories under duress. I never seem to remember the date my divorce was finalized. Furthermore, many cultures don’t live fixated to a clock and a calendar with the intensity we do. I get the impression that not knowing the date of your marriage somehow trivializes the union. But in many places in Africa, the date is debatable because marriage is often celebrated by custom first and by civil ceremony later.
I have worked with asylum seekers who had been taken from their homes in the night, beaten and tortured for political opposition to the government in power. I have heard of gang rapes and horrendous prison conditions. I interpreted for a soldier who would not follow orders to participate in a genocide operation. He was tortured by being hung by his feet in his cell. I have translated the tearful trembling voices of women escaping female excision at the hands of their own family members. And universally, religion seems to be a reason to maim and to kill, to seize property and liberty. If I did nothing but asylum cases, I would surely develop a bitter, pessimistic view of the human race. Mankind remains medievally stupid in a scientific, technological age.
Enough asylum applicants opt to employ “my brother’s friend Hassan” as an interpreter so that, for the past couple of years, the asylum office has needed to remedy the situation by dialing up an on-line language service to listen to the interpretation being performed, as a check for accuracy. I’m extremely proud to say that I have not been corrected to date, and have even been congratulated by one asylum officer, who must have had to break up more than one linguistic battle between interpreters. It is additionally stressful to be professionally monitored in the rendering of the translation of a victim’s torture and persecution. Such a situation is not for the linguistically faint of heart or vocabulary.
I have met many fascinating, brave, heartbreaking and inspiring personalities during my work on asylum cases. I was present when one young woman was given the news that she had been granted asylum. She ran a dozen laps of the reception area, non-stop, her arms over her head. I took her to breakfast after that, to celebrate over French toast, and to possibly keep her from fainting.
My North African soldier who went AWOL during the genocide mission was quite memorable as well. Small in stature with elegant, handsome features, he looked as if he should be in a movie charging across the desert on an Arabian horse, brandishing a sword. He chatted blithely with me in the waiting room, clearly happy to be speaking French with someone. After fifteen minutes of our exchange, a corpulent black woman who had been sitting across from us, easily twice his size, stuffed into bright pink sweats and men’s athletic shoes, suddenly pryed herself loose from her chair, spewing profanities, swinging her weighty handbag in a deadly arc near our heads as she strode towards the exit. To my surprise, the little soldier chased after her, pleading “Chérie, come back…!” I had no idea she was his Significant Other. We had not been introducted. A more unlikely physical pair could not be imagined. Apparently I had, in speaking a foreign language, made her jealous!
I have had clients for whom I was fairly sure the outcome would be denial of asylum. Their stories sounded concocted, or they brought piles of press clippings to emphasize how bad conditions are back home. I always tell them that this interview is about their own personal situation, that the U.S. cannot take in whole populations because they are not represented, or persecuted. The applicant has to make his own case. I tell them that a critical question will be “if your mother and sister and brother are still living back in your country, without fear, why can you not go back?”
Many times, as a freelancer, I hear the comment, from family and friends, that maybe a real job will come along for me some day, with the corporate desk, hours and benefits. I don’t do asylum interviews because they are lucrative. However, I do have a teak elephant on my desk, an ever-present reminder from a grateful new American citizen. I have also been “unofficially” declared Togolese by a group in Chicago for whom I did some pro bono work. I have had my hand kissed by an attorney and have received blessings on “my children and my children’s children”, and even the odd, offhand proposal of marriage in the elevator. Mostly, asylum work makes me grateful for what I have and reminds me why it’s important to be bilingual.
I do love my job.