Lawyers and legal observers expressed confusion and frustration this week as immigration hearings ramped up at two new tent facilities along the US-Mexico border in Laredo and Brownsville, Texas.
The facilities are an expansion of the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols program, which requires some migrants to wait in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings. The judges, in these cases, are not at the tent facility but preside by teleconference from other immigration courts several miles away. The process has meant lawyers have faced a host of logistical challenges in representing clients who are staying in Mexico.
“The whole process is disorienting,” said Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “How could we expect these unrepresented individuals fleeing harm, fleeing violence from their home countries… how could we even expect them to fully understand this process?”
The Trump administration began the roll out of MPP, informally known as “remain in Mexico,” earlier this year. The first slate of hearings in March also stirred confusion among immigration lawyers who scrambled to understand the intricacies of the policy. Previously, migrants seeking asylum were allowed to stay in the United States as their case moved through the immigration court system.
Lisa Koop, lawyer at the National Immigrant Justice Center, represented eight migrants who are seeking asylum and waiting in Mexico for the duration of their proceedings. Koop attended hearings at the Laredo tent court where her cases were scheduled.
Koop and her clients were able to briefly meet in small, air-conditioned rooms before the hearings, which began at 8:30 a.m. During the hearings, Koop described how migrants saw the immigration judge on a screen, but not the Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys, adding that it was “often hard to hear” them.
While her clients had a sense of what was going on, others appeared “bewildered.”
“It was a lot of confusion, a lot of people who believed this would be the hearing where they could present their cases,” Koop said.
In one instance, she recalled a little boy and his mother who didn’t have legal representation at the hearing.
“[He] was standing up, asleep, leaning on his mom, moaning as the judge addressed the group,” Koop said.
Questions about access
According to the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the nation’s immigration courts, 19 judges from three immigration courts in Texas are hearing cases through video conferencing – which has been used in immigration courts before.
“These courts are supposed to be open to the public,” said Charanya Krishnaswami, Americas advocacy director at Amnesty International USA, but access has been limited.
Lawyers who are representing migrants scheduled for that day of cases and filed proper documentation can enter the facility. But those who want to observe the daily proceedings are limited to the immigration courts where the judge is located.
In a statement, a Customs and Border Protection official said that “because the immigration hearing facilities (IHF) in Laredo and Brownsville are within CBP’s secure port of entry property, access to these temporary immigration hearing facilities will operate in accordance with practices for other secure CBP areas,” adding that requests for access will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
After being denied access to the Laredo and Brownsville facilities, Krishnaswami went to immigration courts in Harlingen and San Antonio to observe proceedings.
Krishnaswami watched as video of the migrants was fed into the court. “In one of the proceedings I saw this week, a woman was tearfully describing the harm she experienced in Mexico and then the video cut out,” she recalled. When the video came back, the woman had to recount the experience again.
Over the course of the week, Krishnaswami, along with other observers, sat in on dozens of master calendar hearings, the first hearing in removal proceedings, and watched as migrants were either provided a date for their next hearing or in the case of those who didn’t show, ordered removed in absentia.
On Tuesday, for example, there were 56 people listed on a docket in San Antonio. Of those, 33 people appeared and 23 were ordered removed, according to Krishnaswami.
Around 42,000 migrants have been returned to Mexico under the MPP program. Given that they’re residing in Mexico, immigration lawyers based in the US have limited access to them, particularly in dangerous regions. Only a small share of migrants in the program have secured representation, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks court data and released a report on access to attorneys this summer.
Some in the legal community argue that access to the tent facilities, not just the immigration courts where the judges are located, is important for that reason—to give lawyers the opportunity to connect with migrants who may need legal representation and explain the process.
“Normally, I would at least be able to note their names and see if I could try to connect them with a legal service providers,” Krishnaswami said. “I remember thinking all I have is their name and the last three digits of their A-number (which is assigned to noncitizens) and there’s no way to get them help.”