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July 28, 2022

"I Don’t Want to Speak for [Clients] , I Want Them to Be Heard.” A Spotlight on Interpreter Volunteer Kely Martell

By Emily McCabe

A common language is key for any relationship to function properly. but that fact is especially true in an attorney/client relationship. When there is no common language between an attorney and their client, an interpreter is key to bridging that divide. Immigration law, in particular, often necessitates the use of interpreters to best serve clients. In Fiscal Year 2018, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR, or immigration court) provided interpreters for approximately 89% of court hearings. The top languages are consistently Spanish (representing about 74% of all cases in EOIR), Mandarin, Creole, Punjabi, Portuguese, Arabic, Mam (an indigenous Mayan language), and Russian.

The ABA Commission on Immigration (COI) would like to recognize Kely Martell, a paralegal who has worked as a volunteer Spanish interpreter and translator for over a year and a half with the Immigration Justice Project (IJP). Anuj Khetarpal, Associate at Nutter, McClennen & Fish LLP, worked closely with Kely on his defensive asylum pro bono case through IJP. Anuj explains that Kely went out of her way to be widely available and helpful, including navigating the various geographical locations involved with the client being detained in Otay Mesa, California, Kely in San Diego, California, Anuj in Boston, Massachusetts, and the client’s family in South America. 

Kely grew up in Lima, Peru and moved to the United States when she was 13 years old, at which time she spoke no English. Six months later, thanks to Kely’s dedication and hard work, she learned English. Kely first became interested in immigration law during the asylum crisis and has volunteered as an interpreter for several immigration legal organizations. 

When Kely moved to San Diego for school, she attended a virtual program where Ambreen Waliji, Pro Bono Coordinator and Senior Staff Attorney at IJP, presented on the panel. Kely reached out to Ambreen through the chat feature and shortly thereafter began interpreting for IJP.  

Kely enjoyed volunteering with IJP because the experience was uniquely one-on-one with the attorneys and it was rewarding to help detained immigrants, a population that is isolated but often in desperate need for assistance. Kely reflects on one of her most recent experiences where an IJP client told her he felt very alone and “while the [U.S. immigration] system feels very inhumane, the attorneys were able to provide a humane side.” Kely explains that the client was deeply appreciative for all the legal calls and interpretation services provided. Before being connected with Kely and the legal team, the client had no idea legal representation, much less free representation was an option for him. 

Kely describes that one of the biggest benefits to this work is “knowing that we’re providing help to those who need it.” Kely also explains that “in a legal matter, I want clients to have their own voice – I don’t want to speak for them, I need them to be heard.” Currently, Kely works as a business immigration paralegal, but she is studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and hopes to become a lawyer and one day she strives to establish her own nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants.    

Volunteer interpreters like Kely are the backbone of pro bono programs, which aim to connect people in need of legal services to licensed attorneys. In immigration cases, individuals who are not represented by counsel face an uphill battle, for example, asylum-seekers are five times more likely to be granted asylum when they have attorneys. Everyone deserves to know their immigration situation, ask questions, and understand their options and that can only be accomplished through a common language. Anuj explains that in cases where there is a language barrier between attorney and client, the interpreter is vital and, ultimately, “having good interpreters is an access to justice issue.” Anuj asserts, “I could not represent my client without an interpreter. Clients are not able to effectively communicate their needs and assist in their cases without an interpreter.” 

Kely’s advice for people considering or looking to volunteer as interpreters: 

  • Interpreting is an important function and if you speak the language and want to try it, go for it. Everyone has to start somewhere, and you’ll get better as you gain experience.

  • Listen when people talk. Don’t fill-in information, even when it seems obvious, if the client did not directly supply the information. And listen closely so that it is easier to identify and understand any issues or differences due to language variation or dialects.

  • Reach out directly to organizations you’re interested in working with. There’s nothing to lose by asking and at the very least you might make a contact at the organization! And if the organization does not currently need interpretation services, they might be able to introduce you to another organization that could use your help.

  • Be calm. Whether delivering difficult news or asking personal questions relevant to the case, your demeanor as interpreter can help keep the client at ease. 

  • Practice self-care. Awareness of and caring for your mental health is essential as an interpreter. As Kely explains “if you’re a little off [one day due to stress or mental fatigue], you could miss something.”

How to Volunteer:

If you are interested in volunteering your time and language skills with COI, please fill out this Volunteer Interest Survey. We offer remote and in-person interpretation and translation opportunities.

About IJP:

In early 2008, the American Bar Association launched an innovative pro bono immigration pilot project pursuant to a seed grant from the ABA Enterprise Fund. Over a decade later the Immigration Justice Project continues its mission to improve public awareness of the legal system, to promote the administration of justice, and to deliver high-quality legal services. IJP’s goals are specifically targeted toward promoting due process and access to justice at all levels of the immigration and appellate court systems through the provision of high-quality legal services to individuals navigating immigration legal proceedings in the San Diego, California border region.