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Privatizing Language Work: Interpreters and Access in Los Angeles Immigration Court

  • Author(s): Rao, Sonya
  • Advisor(s): Kroskrity, Paul V.
  • et al.

The dissertation addresses the privatization of communication-based labor in public services. The linguistic anthropological study uses well-established tools of ethnography of communication to examine daily hearings in Los Angeles Immigration Court (2014-2017). I first turn attention to the extraction of invisibilized communication-based work in daily immigration court practice. Analytical focus is paid to the communication-based work of interpreters, judges, and attorneys; however, the demonstrated method of identifying the effort that constitutes communication labor can be applied across all industries and work that involve communication. A discussion of the unequal recompense of this labor, and the resulting impacts on court users, follows. Next, I argue that professional and institutional beliefs about comprehension, interpreting, and language barriers constitute working conditions for legal professionals and interpreters. I demonstrate ways in which these ideological working conditions hindered the court from providing meaningful linguistic access to court users. In a case study, I combine the analytical tools for examining communication-based labor and ideological working conditions to account for how courtroom professionals works through ideological notions of comprehension and intelligibility to carry out their tasks. Finally, the dissertation draws on a National Labor Relations Board case, interviews, and ethnographic fieldwork in Los Angeles Immigration Court during a switch from a long-serving language services provider to a controversially unprepared new contractor to discuss the state of communication labor under neoliberalism. I show how the treatment of interpreters during this time is microcosmic of the United States’ larger projects of undermining asylum, mobility, and migration – and therefore is a useful point of intervention. After elaborating the macroanalytic connection between language access and immigration law broadly, I conclude with practical recommendations for legal practice.

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