Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Immigration Judge Benchbook: Self-Help Skills Building for Immigration Court Interpreters

Last April, I wrote a guest post for the NAJIT observer about interpreting in immigration court. Given the controversy in our profession that surrounds immigration court interpreting, I wasn't surprised when it got a lot of traffic, though I was surprised at the hail of comments I got. At the time it was frankly terrifying, but in the end, I think it was a productive dialogue. After that I went on to speak at the NAJIT conference in June about the immigration court and what interpreters can expect if they choose to work there. That was a tremendous experience, and I can't wait to go back this year-I hope to see many of my immigration court colleagues in Ft. Lauderdale at NAJIT's 41st annual conference!

Over the last several months, I've had a lot of people reach out to me and ask me about the mysterious bench book I referred to in that post, so I thought I'd take some time here to explain a little more about that and how I use the immigration judge benchbook to practice and improve my skills as an immigration court interpreter.

The Bench Book

First of all, what is the bench book? Judges in most courts have what's called a bench book, which contains standard language for advisals, templates they use to issue decisions, and other texts they frequently use, like jury instructions. In immigration court, the bench book includes useful texts like voluntary departure advisals, templates for oral decisions, explanations of law (including those tricky statute and case law citations!), rights advisals, and much more. Obviously, the utility of all of this for an interpreter is incredible. Most judges actually borrow extremely liberally from these texts during their hearings, if not read them word for word. The fact that they are always reading is, I believe, why our proceedings are so incredibly fast, but that's neither here nor there.

OK, so now we know what it is. Where do we find it? Admittedly, the benchbook files are a little scattered. Apparently the full, current benchbook used to be on the DOJ EOIR website until around 2017, when it was removed. Since then, some practitioners have been submitting FOIA requests to attempt to get it back, but from what I've seen, they've only gotten partial results.  See here for one lawyer's adventure in tilting at the DOJ windmill.  He's got a number of the files, though not all by any means, and not many of the ones most useful to us. But I did pull the master calendar respondent rights advisals from his page, which I'm sharing here for all of you in an edited format, below, with a recording as an example of how to use these materials.

The full archived benchbook can be found here: Though the law cited in the templates may be out of date, it's still useful to us because in many of the most important ways, the law hasn't changed that much. Legal tests for persecution, credibility, asylum, withholding, withholding under the Convention Against Torture, and cancellation of removal - all of that is really the same, since 2005 at least (in 2005 the Real ID act was passed, and that changed the law substantially). That language is used in oral decisions and is the language we have to practice, because it's going to hit us fast and hard with dense written structures that don't easily lend themselves to transfer orally into another language.

Update: I went ahead and curated and intelligibly labeled some of the IJ benchbook files that I think are most useful for our purposes. Find those here.

Using the Bench Book to Develop Interpreting Practice materials

OK. So now we have it; how do we use it? This is the important part, so pay attention here. What I do (and have done) is sift through the templates to find the most useful ones that contain language that really sounds like what the judges use. Then, I paste my template of choice into a new document and edit it until it's no longer a template, but an actual draft of what a judge might read.

After that, the best thing to do for study purposes is as follows: One, translate that text into your language. Think through all those transfers, and make those elegant choices I know you'll make. Then, record yourself reading the texts. Make a recording, nice and slow, in English, and another recording of your translation. I recommend shadowing your translation a few times to solidify the language transfers in your head, then start interpreting your actual English practice text on asylum, cancellation, or whatever it is. Do this many, many times, recording yourself and listening to the results each time. Give yourself critical feedback, or maybe trade with a friend.

One thing I've learned (at the most valuable court interpreter training I ever attended, University of Arizona's Court Interpreter Training Institute) is that there is in fact value to doing the same exercise over and over again, even if you've basically memorized it. In fact, that's part of the point. Training with practice recordings serves at least two main objectives: one, when you do an exercise fresh, you build and have the opportunity to evaluate your spontaneous interpretation skills. Then, you keep doing that exercise and revisit it periodically to train your brain to quickly pull up correct transfers when you hear specific language that might or certainly will be used in court. Our saving grace as immigration court interpreters is exactly this repetitiveness: you will hear this language over and over again, hearing after hearing. So if you put in the time to have the main legal tests and jurisprudence mostly memorized ahead of time alongside your own prepared renditions, it's then possible to anticipate and create better, clearer interpreted structures than if you do it each time cold.

I've created a sample so you can see what I'm talking about. I'm not including the Spanish translation or my Spanish recordings (you should do that!) but here you can download 1) the text of the master calendar rights advisals, somewhat edited for clarity and realism, and 2) two recordings, one at 145 and one at 160. I'm also including a consecutive dialogue I wrote that pulls in a few interesting terms that stumped me in my first year or so of interpreting in EOIR. Please enjoy! Let me know what you think and if you end up using either my materials or the raw benchbook ones after you download it!

Please do respect my work on this, and download these files only for personal use. If you'd like to use them educationally or commercially, please feel free to get in touch with me.

Consecutive exercise text: Honduran gang asylum case, evangelical pastor
Consecutive exercise audio: Honduran gang asylum case, evangelical pastor
Simultaneous exercise text: Rights advisals at initial master calendar hearing
Simultaneous audio: 145 WPM
Simultaneous audio: 160 WPM

*I've heard from some colleagues that the Google Drive permissions on a couple files aren't working right, and some people can download the files and some can't. If you get a notice that you need permission to access a file, feel free to reach out through the contact form and let me know! I do want to share these, so I want to make sure everyone can access. Also, if you're accessing from a phone (that seems to be where the problems are) try and click "view" as opposed to "download."


  1. Thank you, Tamber, for your outstanding research and, especially, for your generosity in sharing your work with colleagues so freely. It is deeply appreciated!!

  2. Dear Tamber, thank you so much for this article and all the resources you are sharing with us. I wanted to learn about working in Immigration Court, which is different from what I am used to, and this is so useful. Thank you!


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