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July 28, 2022

Opening a Door to Liberty and Opportunities: A Spotlight on Translation Volunteer Bartolome Canellas

By Julissa Rodriguez

When Bartolome Canellas, a fully bilingual engineer and scientist from Puerto Rico, retired in 2020, he decided to apply his language skills to bridging barriers faced by immigrants. For more than a year, Bartolome has provided crucial translation support to immigrants and asylum-seekers through ProBAR’s Remote Translation Volunteer Program, standing out for the volume of work he has completed and his willingness to jump in to assist whenever needed. His contributions to this program demonstrate the vital nature of translation support and the important role that non-attorneys can play in opening doors for immigrants and asylum-seekers in removal proceedings.

When someone is subject to removal proceedings, there are many things that they must do to secure legal relief from deportation.  The United States immigration system is difficult to navigate. To prevent deportation, migrants must file for legal relief and present their case before the immigration court. Without a right to appointed counsel, many people face this process without an attorney. In addition to developing an understanding of forms of relief and gathering evidence, each migrant also faces a persistent challenge as they prepare to appear before an immigration judge: the United States Department of Justice requires that, “all documents filed with the Immigration Court must be in the English language or accompanied by a certified English translation.” Because many migrants are coming from countries where English is not the dominant language, this stipulation tends to be a major barrier to successfully filing an application and submitting evidence to support their case.

Our team at ProBAR has seen firsthand how difficult it can be for migrants to struggle to prepare for their hearings, with evidence packets in their native languages and limited resources to translate them into English. Located in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, ProBAR serves thousands of people every year through our mission of empowering migrants through high-quality legal education, representation, and connections to services. In addition to orienting people to their rights in immigration proceedings and providing direct representation, ProBAR also assists people who are representing themselves. Translation is a key component of our services both for our represented clients and those who do not have attorneys, and the need for translation assistance is greater than what our staff alone can accomplish.

Recognizing this need, ProBAR’s Outreach team began to brainstorm a program to plug in remote volunteers who wanted to make a difference in a migrant’s immigration case.  By learning from other organizations and assessing the needs of our Legal team, a new program emerged to bring volunteer support to addressing this challenge. 

In July 2021, the Remote Translation Program was launched by the Outreach team to assist ProBAR’s Legal Department, as well as other direct services staff, who were helping migrants in our area. While still of modest size, the program has grown to include volunteers who are located across the country. This team of volunteers has assisted almost 30 clients from various countries with translations that include birth certificates, declarations, news articles, and medical records.

Volunteer Bartolome joined the Remote Translation Program in the first group of volunteers oriented to this new initiative at ProBAR in 2021. Bartolome is a Puerto Rico native who is fully bilingual in both English and Spanish. He joined the translation team after his retirement from a career in engineering seeking to help immigrants to be recognized for the benefits and value that they bring to the U.S. Bartolome has completed over 230 hours of translation work during 2022 alone, and the ProBAR team is incredibly grateful for the meaningful contributions he has made. Bartolome has not only translated documents that were used in client’s cases, but he also took on several revision assignments for infographics and resource materials that were created by ProBAR staff. When asked about what he likes about volunteering in this program, Bartolome shares “I love helping immigrants open the door so that they may enjoy liberty, opportunities...Translation helps share values and benefits that people from other cultures could bring to ours. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, and we should continue welcoming immigrants to further enrich our society.” 

The impact of the work of Bartolome and other volunteer translators is immeasurable and incredibly valuable for the people we serve. Every volunteer has their own unique background and factors that drove them to join our program. Some have firsthand experience with the immigration system, and others want to advocate for people navigating the process. Whatever their background, profession, or fields of study, volunteers with language abilities can help immigrants to overcome barriers through their translation assistance. 

The need for translation assistance remains high, and additional volunteers would add to the impact of this valued team. If you or someone you know is interested in getting involved in this program, please fill out ProBAR’s Remote Translation Program Interest Form. If you have any questions, please contact Outreach Associate Julissa Rodriguez at [email protected]