At the State of the Union, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó drew a standing ovation and praise from President Trump: “All Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom.”
That righteous struggle and the continuing violence in the country has generated over 5 million refugees and asylum seekers. The week before the State of the Union, I watched a Guaidó supporter recount how he was forced at gunpoint into a car by President Maduro’s security forces. These men had been following him for weeks, but the kidnapping drove the man to flee with his family to the U.S. border to seek asylum.
His asylum hearing took place, not in the kind of courtroom Americans have come to expect, but in a converted shipping container no more than eight feet wide. The makeshift court was set up last year at the Laredo, Texas border entry point to hear thousands of asylum cases subject to “Remain in Mexico” or the Migrant Protection Protocols — a policy that blocks asylum seekers from entering the United States until the day of their court hearings and forces them repeatedly back into danger.
Having just passed its one-year anniversary, Remain in Mexico has trapped more than 58,000 asylum seekers in Mexico, primarily in towns like Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo that are rife with violence. The families living there are frequently targeted by gangs and cartels. Many are kidnapped for ransom. A local attorney described one case of a 19-year-old woman who was abducted and burned all over her body with cigarettes. By forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, the U.S. government is endangering their lives in violation of U.S. and international law.
The U.S. government’s functional blockade against asylum seekers has created a humanitarian crisis in Mexico. Its growing refugee population barely receives any aid, and the tent camps where they live lack adequate sanitation, medical care, or security. After months of waiting, asylum seekers risk further danger traveling back to the U.S. border to attend their asylum hearings.
The tent courts used for the hearings severely undermine asylum seekers’ access to a fair day in court. The facilities allow only one hour for asylum seekers to meet with their attorneys — if they can find one while living in the migrant camps. Their counsel are also barred from using any electronics, such as laptops or cellphones which makes legal research during a hearing extremely difficult. By contrast, the government’s attorneys have access to computers during hearings, giving them an unfair advantage.
Since the tent courts opened in September 2019, they have been closed off to the press, legal observers, and the public. After months of public demand, the government began granting access for observers to attend the hearings for initial and brief appearances. But for months, it completely blocked observation at the full “merits” asylum hearings in violation of federal regulations.
My attendance at the Venezuelan man’s hearing was the first time an observer had been granted official access to a merits asylum case in the Laredo tent court. On the day of the hearing, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), for which I work, and other non-government organizations attended a tour of the Laredo facility during which the government official announced that observers would be allowed into such hearings. These were notable steps toward transparency.
Despite these steps, the government has yet to publish rules about access for attorneys of record or observers, undermining accountability. For example, the tour officials said people who are deaf, blind or have other vulnerabilities are not subject to Remain in Mexico. But in practice, people with known disabilities, pregnant women and people of LGBT orientation have been forced to wait in Mexico, including a case this week involving Cuban woman who is nearly blind.
The United States can set up an orderly and efficient way to screen asylum seekers while still treating them fairly and humanely. A starting point would be to reform the immigration courts. Former Attorney General Sessions restricted immigration judges’ authority to continue, close, and terminate cases under the mistaken belief it would streamline operations. Without those docket management tools, however, judges are less efficient. Poor policy choices like these have driven the court backlog to exceed one million cases.
Court reforms must be accompanied by the termination of Remain in Mexico and other policies that are blocking asylum seekers. The Venezuelan man won his case, but he was not eligible for asylum due to another ban President Trump instituted last year. Rolando Vazquez, the attorney who helped him win other forms of legal relief, including protection under the Convention Against Torture, deserves a hero’s recognition.
As much as we like to stand and sing praise for heroes, the fair processing of asylum cases cannot depend on the individual acts of courageous people. To safeguard asylum and other freedoms in the United States, Venezuela, or any country, those principles must ultimately be borne and protected by our governments. The U.S. government has real solutions at its disposal—now it needs to implement them.