LAREDO, Texas — Tent courts erected at the southern border to hear the cases of thousands of asylum-seekers forced to return to Mexico under a Trump administration policy opened for the first time Wednesday in Laredo, Texas — but few got to see inside as the public, including media, was denied access.
A Department of Homeland Security officer who wasn't wearing a name tag and declined to provide his name said the hearings were not open to the public and that only law enforcement, attorneys with clients who had hearings that day, and government contractors would be allowed inside.
“It’s not a public hearing,” the officer told BuzzFeed News.
A DHS official said that while immigration court proceedings are generally open to the public, asylum hearings at the tent facilities were unique from other immigration courts because of “the law enforcement sensitive priorities” of the nearby official border crossings.
“These soft-sided facilities will not be open to in-person public access, including media access,” the DHS official said.
The public, including the media, will have the ability to observe proceedings at immigration courts in San Antonio, DHS said, where judges who are conducting hearings via video teleconference are located more than 150 miles away. Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) hearings at tents in Brownsville are expected to start Thursday.
Ashley Huebner, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, was able to enter the tent facility briefly before being told to leave because she didn’t have a client appearing before the court. She said the lack of access to court observers and reporters was concerning.
“It’s particularly critical here because the entire process is taking place with such a lack of transparency,” Huebner told BuzzFeed News. “The entire setup confirmed how absurd it is to call this a courtroom and court proceedings.”
As of early September, more than 42,000 asylum-seekers have been forced to wait in Mexico while their immigration proceedings play out, according to acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan. Asylum-seekers in MPP, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” have reported being assaulted, kidnapped, and extorted while being forced to wait in Mexico. With limited shelter space, some have to rent apartments or rooms, while others are homeless and relying on donations.
It’s unclear how many have given up their cases, but some asylum-seekers have taken up the Mexican government’s offer to be bused to the interior of Mexico or as far as the state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala.
Kennji Kizuka, senior researcher in refugee protection at Human Rights First, said that by banning independent monitors and potential pro bono lawyers from tent courts, the Trump administration was hiding information about the human rights abuses asylum-seekers are suffering after being forced to return to Mexico.
“It is just another attempt to cover up the flaws in this sham asylum process, a process created to block refugees from finding safety in the United States,” Kizuka said in a statement. “Now it seems that the administration is blocking legal observers from monitoring the due process deficiencies in these immigration hearings and the harms suffered by asylum seekers returned back to danger by the Trump administration.”
Immigrants in MPP can ask the government for a non-refoulement interview if they believe they will be persecuted if they return to Mexico. Attorneys say it’s rare that immigrants are removed from MPP and allowed into the US following these interviews, which lawyers have not been allowed to attend.
Huebner said there was space for these hearings at the Laredo tent court facility but attorneys would still not be allowed to participate. It’s significant, Huebner said, because the previous reason given for prohibiting lawyers at non-refoulement interviews was that they occurred as part of secondary inspection, but this space is not secondary inspection.
“I don’t know any other word to describe this other than a sham,” Huebner said.
There were about 20 asylum-seekers waiting for their MPP hearings Wednesday morning including children, women, and men, Huebner said. An attorney who was with a client who had a hearing Wednesday did not know how to get to the court and had to ask CBP at the border for help finding the tent facility.
The entrance to the tent facility is not clearly marked; two employees carrying office equipment told an attorney and a BuzzFeed News reporter they could enter through a door at the top of wooden stairs. There was no doorbell at the door, only a keypad.
Rebecca Jamil, a former immigration judge who stepped down from the court soon after the Trump administration separated families at the border, in a tweet said it can be stressful having a journalist in the court amid technology malfunctions during a hearing, but that is the point of reporters being in the room.
A 2017 Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review study on the immigration courts recommended limiting the use of video teleconferencing due to technical issues and because it was difficult for a judge to analyze body language.
“Faulty [video teleconferencing] equipment, especially issues associated with poor video and sound quality, can disrupt cases to the point that due process issues may arise,” the report said.
All of the MPP hearings at the tent court facilities will be conducted via video teleconference, DHS said.
Judy Perry Martinez, president of the American Bar Association, who toured the tent facilities in Brownsville, Texas, echoed the concern. It will be difficult for the 150 judges expected to hold MPP hearings via teleconference to see an asylum-seeker’s emotions when they are making a determination on their credibility, she said.
Because it’s difficult for lawyers to go into the Mexican border cities these immigrants are sent back to, Perry Martinez said it’s crucial that asylum-seekers at the tent facilities have enough time to discuss their case with their attorneys. She asked DHS officials to allow lawyers and their clients to meet before and after hearings at the tents, even on the days they don’t have hearings.
“Meaningful access to counsel cannot be impeded in any sense and we believe what we’re asking for is fair,” Perry Martinez told BuzzFeed News.
Most asylum-seekers in MPP hearings haven’t been able to get legal representation, according to an analysis from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Having legal representation increases the chances of an immigrant winning their asylum case or getting some other type of relief that allows them to stay in the US.
Perry Martinez met with asylum-seekers waiting in Matamoros, Mexico, hundreds of whom were living on the streets under the threat of violence. She met families who were living without fresh water and were told to bathe in the Rio Grande River. When the US launched MPP, it did so with the understanding that Mexico would be offering returned asylum-seekers humanitarian aid, but that hasn’t been the case Perry Martinez said.
“The conditions I saw in Matamoros was not something this country would be proud of,” Perry Martinez said. “If the premise of the program is not being upheld, our country needs to do something about it.”