Courts Cater To Spanish Speakers

Keyonna Summers, Washington Times, July 31, 2006

Maryland and Virginia court officials say their budgets for Spanish-language interpreters have increased about 10 percent annually over the past decade as more immigrants and illegal aliens have settled in the area.

Virginia officials added nine freelance, Spanish-language interpreters in fiscal 2005, which brought its total to 113 and cost $3.42 million—a 12.3 percent budget increase over fiscal 2004.

The state’s fiscal 2005 budget for the entire courts system was $269.9 million, which covered 2,568 employees but did not include substitute judges, circuit court clerks or wage employees.

Maryland contracted the services of 350 interpreters, about 45 percent of them Spanish speaking, at a cost of $1.75 million in fiscal 2005 and has budgeted more than $2 million for interpreters in fiscal 2006. The state court system in fiscal 2005 had a $311.2 million budget and employed about 4,700 judges, contractors and full- and part-time employees.

The District reduced its contracting costs in fiscal 2005 for its federally funded interpreter program—from $650,000 to $450,000.

However, the reduction was the result of the system adding more Spanish-language interpreters to its staff. The system now has about 200 interpreters proficient in 56 languages.

About $82.4 million of the D.C. court system’s $133.5 million operating budget in fiscal 2005 went to about 1,160 employees.

Hispanics represent 40 percent of the 1 million immigrants and illegal aliens in the region, and their population has doubled within the last decade, the District-based Urban Institute reports.

Court officials say the demand for interpreters is quickly outpacing the supply.

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Xiomara Iglesias—a certified Spanish interpreter working on the high-profile retrial of Adan Canela and Policarpio Espinoza Perez, two Mexican illegal aliens accused of nearly beheading three young relatives two years ago in Baltimore—said she has seen a marked increase in the demand for Spanish interpreters in the region over the past two years.

Mrs. Iglesias, who was born in Central America, said the demand may be attributed in part to the diminished need to learn English.

“Nowadays you have Spanish radio, Spanish TV, newspapers …,” said Mrs. Iglesias, 37, of Silver Spring.

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Virginia interpreters served 54,090 persons last year, while D.C. interpreters handled 7,661 cases. Maryland statistics were not available.

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The money, she said, isn’t enough to compete with the wages paid by Virginia courts and private companies.

According to the Consortium for State Court Interpreters, which regulates interpreting standards in 33 states, Virginia interpreters, depending on certification and skill, earn $35 to $85 an hour and as much as $500 per day—the highest in the region. The difference in wage may explain why Virginia has fewer interpreters but a higher payout, officials say.

Maryland court interpreters earn $35 to $50 an hour, with no daily option. Interpreters in the District, which is not a consortium member, earn $329 per full day or $178 per half-day.

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But as the region’s Asian population swells past 32 percent of all immigrants, court officials report difficulty in finding interpreters fluent in Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin and several Indian dialects.

Maryland officials say finding an interpreter for those languages can take weeks or even months.

D.C. officials say they are able to provide interpreters for less-commonly known African languages, such as Eritrea’s Tigrinya, only about 80 percent of the time. About 15 percent of District-area immigrants are from Africa and the Middle East.

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Mobile, Ala.—Mobile Police Officer Steve Rocha didn’t learn English until he was 6 years old, because his parents, who immigrated from Mexico to Mississippi, wanted to make sure he never forgot his heritage.

Now, decades later, Rocha is putting his Spanish skills to use helping Latino families and law enforcement agents in Mobile understand each other better.

Rocha, a nine-year veteran of the Police Department, is one of three Spanish-speaking officers the department calls on for translations. When officers encounter a suspect or a witness who can speak only Spanish, Rocha is usually the person they call.

While some law enforcement officials said the Hispanic population is growing in Mobile and Baldwin counties, the number of Spanish-speaking officers at several of the major local law enforcement agencies is not—affecting not only day-to-day communication but partnerships between the Latino community and law enforcement.

Top local law enforcement officials said the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed much of the Gulf Coast last year, and the availability of employment, particularly construction jobs, has brought a huge wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the Mobile Bay region.

“Katrina has changed the complexion of a lot of things,” said Mobile police Chief Phillip Garrett. “I think we’ve picked up a lot of people that either now live in Mobile or work here, and the importance of having someone that speaks Spanish is greater now than even a year ago. … The need is probably going to be even greater in the future.”

The Mobile County Sheriff’s Office has two Spanish-speaking officers who can translate fluently, while at the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office—where one top official called the language barrier a priority concern—there is only one Spanish translator, according to authorities at those departments.

The Alabama Department of Safety’s State Trooper division has no Spanish speakers at its Mobile post, which covers Mobile, Baldwin, Washington, Clarke and Choctaw counties, a trooper spokesman said.

Determining exactly how many legal or illegal immigrants are in Mobile and Baldwin counties is difficult.

The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington estimated that about 11 million illegal aliens were in the United States in 2005. The center said that between 30,000 and 50,000 undocumented immigrants were in Alabama, but the estimate did not break down the numbers by region or county

In the 2000 Census, Mobile County had 4,887 residents who identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino, or 1.2 percent of the total population estimated at 399,843.

Baldwin County had 2,466 Hispanic or Latino residents. That number was 1.8 percent of a total population of 140,415.

A 2005 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau did not list Hispanic population projections for Mobile and Baldwin counties, though the overall population in both counties increased significantly.

Hernn Prado, founder of the Alabama Latin American Association, said the percentage of Spanish-speaking officers in Alabama does not accurately represent the percentage of Spanish-speakers in the state.

The Hispanic population is around 6 percent to 9 percent of Alabama’s total population, Prado said, and having one or two bilingual officers in agencies is just not enough, he said. It’s a problem not only in southwest Alabama, but also in departments across the state, Prado said.

“It will get worse if the trend of immigration growth continues increasing,” he said.

The increase in non-English-speaking Mobilians is something Rocha has noticed because of the frequency in which he gets called out to translate, he said.

“We’ve always had a small Hispanic community in Mobile,” Rocha said. “Since the hurricane, of course, there’s been a big influx, basically because of construction. Am I seeing more calls? Yeah, in the last few years, because of the influx of the population and the rate with which the Hispanic community has grown.”

Rocha, who gets called out to translate in addition to working his regular patrol shift, said in the past six months, he’s been called out at least once a week for translation purposes. He was particularly in need over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, when Mobile police set up four nights of road blocks throughout the city.

“They encountered quite a few non-English speakers, and I got called out to quite a few (checkpoints),” Rocha said.

Most of the time, Rocha said, he is called to respond to violent crime scenes or speaks to suspects and witnesses connected to some sort of violent crime.

“Just in the last few months when I’ve been called out, it’s been usually party gatherings,” Rocha said. “A group gets together and they have a little too much to drink, and then a fight breaks out, and then somebody gets cut or shot, and usually they’ll call me to the scene to interview witnesses,” he said.

Being one of the only translators in the department can mean long hours and interrupted personal time, Rocha said.

“It would also help to have more Spanish-speaking officers just to build that rapport with the Hispanic community—because it’s here, and it’s not going anywhere,” Rocha said.

In Baldwin County, dealing with the increase in non-English speakers is one of the biggest problems the Sheriff’s Office is having, said spokesman Lt. John Murphy.

“Spanish is the biggest issue we have right now because of the influx of the Hispanic community,” Murphy said. “It’s our largest (minority) population. … We haven’t seen that it’s slowing down, either.”

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