Criminal Defense of Immigrants


§ 4.1 I. Introduction

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Over one in every six Americans over the age of five does not speak English as a primary language.  Of those nearly 47 million persons, 45.4 percent speak English “less than very well.”  On any given day, over 150 different languages are spoken in the United States.[1]  These numbers are rising over time.[2]   If denied access to competent interpretation, a non- or limited-English-speaking defendant is seriously handicapped, if not effectively absent and entirely prevented from understanding what is going on or assisting in his or her own defense.


                A total of 117 languages required interpretation in federal court proceedings in fiscal year 2006.  The overwhelming majority – 95 percent – of the 205,550 language-interpreting events were in Spanish. . . .  Other frequently used languages were Mandarin (1,480 events), Vietnamese (988), Arabic (908), Korean (871), Cantonese (868), Russian (610), Portuguese (492), Haitian Creole (447), and Punjabi (375).[3]


Innocent people have been convicted for lack of competent interpretation.  For example, one person was convicted of drug trafficking on the basis of a tape recording in which he told a government agent, in Spanish, that he had a “kilo.”  The jury was never told that “kilo” was street slang in Spanish for a ten dollar bill.  They thought, because of bad interpretation, that he said he had a kilogram of drugs, when in fact he said he had a ten dollar bill.


                Defense counsel must take very seriously the job of making sure a non- or limited-English speaking defendant has access to exact interpretation at every stage of the proceedings, and at every conversation with counsel.


                This chapter will outline the law in this area, and offer information and suggestions for counsel on how to make sure the defendant can communicate and understand the legal and other English involved in a criminal case. [4]  Some background will be given on the nature of competent interpretation, how to assess the need for an interpreter, the different functions interpreters serve, the qualifications of an interpreter, how to prepare the interpreter to do the job, supervision of the interpreter, and making a record of issues related to language interpretation.  Finally, this Chapter will discuss the interpreter’s various roles, and the role of the court in ensuring the defendant understands the proceedings through access to accurate interpretation.


                Although this chapter focuses on use of interpreters in criminal court, immigration counsel will find this information useful in ensuring adequate interpretation in immigration proceedings, and in objecting to related due process violations.  Moreover, criminal counsel defending illegal re-entry cases will find it useful in suggesting “invalid deportation” arguments in federal criminal court.

[1] U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000 Census of Population, Summary File 3, Table P19 (Internet release date February 25, 2003). 

[2] Moore & Mamiya, Interpreters in Court Proceedings, in J. Moore, editor, Immigrants in Courts 29 (Univ. of Washington Press 1999) (giving 1990 Census figures).

[3] United States Courts press release, (Feb. 12, 2007).

[4] Much of this Chapter is based on the excellent article by Kay, Ramirez & Hill, Using Interpreters, in J. Connell & R. Valladares, eds., Cultural Issues in Criminal Defense 2-1 (Juris Publishing 2000). 




M. Carter-Balske, L. Kay & L. Friedman Ramirez, Use of Foreign Language Interpreters, in L. FRIEDMAN RAMIREZ, ED., CULTURAL ISSUES IN CRIMINAL DEFENSE 35 (2d ed. 2007).
M. Marty, Tape Transcription and Translation Guidelines, in L. FRIEDMAN RAMIREZ, ED., CULTURAL ISSUES IN CRIMINAL DEFENSE 79 (2d ed. 2007).
M. van Naerssen, Language Proficiency and Its Relationship to Language Evidence, in L. FRIEDMAN RAMIREZ, ED., CULTURAL ISSUES IN CRIMINAL DEFENSE 93 (2d ed. 2007).