In July, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expanded the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as the Remain in Mexico policy, to include Laredo and Brownsville. DHS has built massive temporary tent facilities that are functioning as virtual immigration courtrooms for MPP cases. The rollout of these port courts has been shrouded in secrecy – DHS did not provide advance public information to attorneys or other stakeholders about even the most basic operational logistics related to the new tent courts, despite their launch last week.
Gathering information from our members and colleagues on the ground in Laredo, San Antonio, and Brownsville has been extremely helpful. We brought those local voices to the press via a telephonic press briefing, press statement, and through social media.
But we need to do more.
The week of September 16, AILA Senior Policy Counsel Laura Lynch and Policy Counsel Leidy Perez-Davis were on the ground to observe these port courts, beginning in Laredo. We posted updates below as they headed to the mock “courts” made up of tents and shipping containers. They observed partial hearings in San Antonio and learned more about the new policies and procedures in place. Below, find updates in reverse chronological order, with newest updates first.
Thursday, October 3, 2019 – NEW VIDEO!
Friday, September 20, 2019 8:45PM Central
Along with meetings, the day was spent in part discussing the entire trip on a call with reporters – audio here. We were joined by Greg Chen who moderated, and shared some additional insights.
There were so many due process concerns visible in just our short visit and we urge Congressional members, the media, and the public to keep asking questions.
Friday, September 20, 2019: 10:00AM Central
Laura: Yesterday afternoon, we finally heard definitively from ICE that there were not going to be any hearings conducted in the Brownsville tents today. [Lightbulb flash] If no one is going to be in the tents, we could potentially at least get a tour! We requested access from CBP, the same folks who turned us down earlier in the week when we requested access to the Laredo tents.
Leidy: Laura sent the email and FWIW did get a response back pretty quickly – despite no respondents being there, we still couldn’t go in. Here’s the email:
Laura: As our time in TX draws to a close, we’re going to wrap up by debriefing press on a call in a few hours. We’ll share some details we didn’t get up here on the blog yet, and we’ll offer insights into how the system works or doesn’t work, the due process concerns we have, and the desperate need for access. We’ll post the audio of the press call here later today.
Leidy: But I can’t help but think we’re the lucky ones who get to leave. We’re heading home. The asylum seekers who are processed through these facilities (and sent back to Mexico potentially multiple times along the way) have no such luck. They have fled a home that no longer feels safe or secure, where their children are threatened, their own lives on the line. Given everything they have gone through, we should not be forcing them through this process with the deck so stacked against them. AILA has offered solutions that would actually help the situation at the border and ensure a more fair and just process. Please, urge your congressional representatives to visit these courts themselves and to support humane and common sense solutions!
Thursday, September 19, 2019: 2:40PM Central
We were told at the Port Isabel facility that “administrative control” related to MPP hearings rests with the Harlingen Court.
After entering the Harlingen Immigration Court, we asked when the next MPP hearing would be scheduled and were told not until Tuesday, but the court personnel wasn’t sure, and was not able to tell us about Port Isabel MPP hearings at all. The staff said “You should contact DHS, they are the ones driving everything.”
Thursday, September 19, 2019 12:58PM Central
Laura: We were denied entrance to the Brownsville tent court this morning, see video below detailing denials the last few days. We’re heading to the Port Isabel Detention Center to learn more about that facility.
Thursday, September 19, 2019 9:45 AM Central
We were allowed into the San Antonio courts yesterday and what follows are notes from the hearings we thought were of most interest.
Video Teleconferencing (VTC) Functionality:
- At the first hearing, 8:27 AM: dial through not working.
- A few minutes later, 8:30 AM: call connected, judge in her seat, began proceedings. All respondents and the one pro bono counsel were present. Counsel and respondent were already at the table, and the judge asked if she had the E-28 on file.
- At 8:33 AM: connection dropped, call disconnected. Judge says: “Looks like we are going to have to sit here and wait.”
- Few minutes go by and call from Laredo tent court comes through.
- 8:43 AM: Call was breaking up a bit. Video was grainy. But the call did not drop. Attorney expressed client’s fear of returning to Mexico, and DHS stated that they would order the non-refoulement interview to assess whether the client will be persecuted if they are returned to Mexico during the proceedings.
Selected Access to Counsel Concerns:
- Attorney asked for time after the hearing to meet with client and the Judge said that she is not allowed to get involved in whether people have access to attorneys.
- The judge also told the respondents “We will be giving you a list of legal service providers. I’m not even sure that any of them are representing people in Mexico. Best bet is for someone you know to go in person to the legal service providers.”
- Young woman: When asked if she wanted to apply for asylum by the judge, the migrant said no. When the judge asked her what she wanted to do with the case, the young girl said she was looking for refuge in the US because she could not go back to her country.
- Due process denied in action: Applications were given only in English. Judge told individuals that she understood how difficult it would be for them to fill out the application, but that she needed for them to do their best.
- Judge told the first individual who expressed a fear of returning to Mexico (individuals must express fear of being returned to Mexico themselves, they are not asked by DHS or DOJ): “I sympathize with you, there is just nothing I can do. I have very limited power.”
- Contrary to what attorneys saw on Monday in Laredo, it appears now that interpreters with attorneys are being allowed into the hearing rooms to assist with attorney client communication with the hearing.
- We learned that Respondents are not allowed to leave the port court until they have received the notice of their next hearing date.
Leidy: The disadvantage is so evident in these hearings. The cards are so severely stacked against these individuals, that they have no fighting chance. The migrants looked lost, exhausted, and dazed. They are being asked to learn in a few weeks what lawyers have to learn with years of education and practice. The government is never unrepresented, yet because of the obstacles the government has chosen to throw into the process, these migrants have no meaningful opportunity to obtain the counsel they so desperately need in order to have a fair day in court.
These people are asking for refuge. They are told to not hope for an attorney because attorneys are not practicing in Mexico.
Laura: One of the biggest takeaways is how much responsibility is being shifted from the court to DHS and then back again. When people explained that they were afraid to return to Mexico, that they had been kidnapped or assaulted, the judges would just tell them that the “process” was that they would be referred to non-refoulement interviews. However, the non-refoulement interview has a heightened standard and the migrants rarely have attorneys to walk them through the process. There is no recourse or protection for these individuals.
We’re in Brownsville this morning. More to come.
Wednesday, September 18, 2019 8:00AM Central
Leidy: We made it to the San Antonio Immigration Court. We will be heading in shortly and updating you all on what we see and hear.
Tuesday, September 17, 2019 4:55PM Central
Laura: We are heading out from Laredo. We are anxious to get to San Antonio to actually observe the other half of some hearings and see if there’s any chance at all that these vulnerable asylum seekers are able to have a fair day in court and due process.
Leidy: From what we heard from attorneys in Laredo today: Only attorneys who had signed agreements with clients scheduled for hearings were allowed into the courtroom. Two different immigration judges were hearing cases. Several technical difficulties were reported: in one instance the respondent in Laredo was connected with wrong remote courtroom. More glitches followed. After all these migrants had gone through to supposedly get a meaningful chance to claim asylum under our own laws, the least the administration should guarantee is a chance at an actual functioning courtroom—let alone justice. We’ll see if the rights enshrined in our Constitution are upheld in the courtroom tomorrow; they definitely were not in Laredo today despite it being #ConstitutionDay.
Tuesday, September 17, 2019 3:50PM Central
This is the email we received in response to the request for access:
This is a photo of the motorcade approaching the facility of us and Ursela Ojeda of Women’s Refugee Commission:
Tuesday, September 17, 2019 9:10AM Central
Laura: We tried to enter the courts at Laredo again this morning as attorney observers. Again, my ID and bar card were checked. This time I was told that CBP was the agency calling the shots about who could enter. We were denied access.
Leidy: We also heard that later today media and other DHS department heads will be given a “tour”. The media will be allowed to ask questions of the department heads after the tour but the facilities have yet to be opened up to NGO’s on the ground seeking to see the proceedings and facilities. There’s a big difference between being walked around the physical site and observing what actually happens in court. Hopefully, however shepherded, the media will be able to at least report out some of what they see.
Tuesday, September 17, 2019 8:00AM Central
Leidy: Having to return to the place where so many attorneys and members of the press have been turned away is disheartening. The United States has always stood as a beacon of hope to immigrants fleeing violence, and it is very difficult to watch these make-shift tent courts try and pass as places where migrants get a meaningful day in court.
Especially infuriating is that the agencies continue to keep attorneys and the public in the dark about exactly what is going on in these #shamcourts.
We must continue to demand answers from the agencies controlling and we must continue to hold our government accountable. Asylum seekers deserve a fair day in court, and meaningful access to counsel. With these hidden courts, with private and government security keeping all stakeholders at an arm’s length, they are getting neither.
Laura: Yesterday, other attorney observers attempted to enter, but they were also denied access as they did not have an attorney representation agreement on file. Reporters also requested access to the tent facilities but were denied.
One attorney who did gain access is Lisa Koop of NIJC, as she is the attorney for four cases that were heard Monday morning.
For an update on what happened on the other end of the video conference, San Antonio where the immigration judge is physically present to hear these cases, please read Yael Schacher’s updates on Twitter.
Monday, September 16, 2019 9:00AM Central
This morning, asylum seekers had to arrive to the bridge by about 4a.m. in order to have a chance at crossing with enough time to attend their hearings.
They traveled from the bridge through a covered walkway to the port court facility.
Laura: I hear there are at least 100 “master calendar hearings” scheduled this morning. In regular immigration proceedings, a “master” is short, a time when the judge ensures the immigrant understands their rights and responsibilities.
Laura: I attempted to enter as an attorney observer at about 7:40a.m. I was initially let in through the first level of security, run by Paragon Security, a DHS contractor. A Paragon representative had me wait in the attorney waiting room, containing about 40 chairs. I was the only individual. My ID and credentials were checked and then I was told that ICE would not allow attorney observers to observe hearings in the port court facilities. I was told that only attorneys with an attorney representation agreement already on file are permitted into the immigration court hearing rooms. My understanding is that if attorneys have interpreters or paralegals with them, they will be allowed into the attorney-client preparation rooms located in the shipping containers, but not the hearing rooms themselves.
Monday, September 16, 2019 7:30AM Central
This is a photo of the attorney entrance to the facility.