The Trump Administration Is Planning Mass Video Proceedings for Immigrants in Tents on the Border

The Department of Homeland Security appears ready to vastly expand the Migrant Protection Protocols with mass video hearings held in tents presided over by distant judges.

Border Patrol surveils detained migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, on May 19, 2019. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A Trump administration program that banishes asylum-seekers to perilous Mexican border cities could expand exponentially — and disastrously — with a new plan to hold mass video proceedings in tents along the border.

Officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, the Trump program has already pushed over 15,000 migrants seeking asylum out of the U.S. and into areas just across the international line, many of which the State Department advises Americans to limit travel to because they are so crime-ridden. Many immigrant rights advocates call the program the “Migrant Persecution Protocols.”

Until this year, immigrants who requested asylum in the U.S. were either put in immigration detention centers or released to family and friends in the U.S. to pursue their claims. But in late January, the MPP was instituted in three U.S. cities: El Paso, Texas; Calexico, California; and San Diego. People assigned to the MPP in those cities are sent across the border to Juarez, Mexicali, and Tijuana. There they must wait, often for months, to return for their immigration hearings in the U.S. — before being sent back to Mexico to await their next hearing.

In Mexico, few of these immigrants have been able to work legally, and many are homeless. As stateless people with no family or friends in Mexico, they are sitting ducks for severe violence. During five weeks of attending court hearings and interviewing Central American and Cuban immigrants in Juarez, The Intercept heard numerous accounts of adults and children being robbed, kidnapped for ransom, raped, and threatened with murder. Most migrants stuck in Mexico under the MPP say they are deeply fearful about being there.

Yet the Department of Homeland Security appears ready to vastly expand the MPP, not just with more crowded courts, but with mass video hearings held in tents presided over by distant judges.

So far, the MPP has sent immigrants to Mexico but returned them for hearings in traditional brick-and-mortar courtrooms, where immigration judges almost always sit a few feet from the migrants and their lawyers, and journalists and representatives from immigrant advocacy groups observe from benches in the spectator section. But the new plan is to erect giant tents, each one subdivided into several courts, and each court containing migrants but no judges, reporters, or observers.

The scenario was described at an hourlong briefing in early June given by DHS officials to several senior staff on Capitol Hill, according to a person with knowledge of the details of the meeting. Since the meeting took place, Taylor Levy, an immigration lawyer in El Paso, and immigrant rights activists with organizations including Human Rights First have confirmed to The Intercept that at least one government official has talked off the record to activists about the tents.

Some immigrant rights activists believe the government was emboldened to enact the plan after several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged the MPP in federal court in San Francisco in February. They sued DHS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and other federal agencies that deal with immigrants. The plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction in April, but a few days later the court lifted it, and then in May decided that the MPP could remain in place until the lawsuit is resolved. There is no deadline for the ruling.

The Capitol Hill meeting followed the stay, as well as an agreement on immigration that was reached on June 7 by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president, and Donald Trump. That accord came after Trump threatened to impose tariffs unless Mexico took steps to impede immigration into the U.S. from Central America. Mexico agreed to take steps, including accepting vastly more immigrants expelled from the U.S. This week, officials from Mexico’s Secretariat of the Interior announced that the country expects to take an additional 50,000 people expelled under the MPP by the end of August.

The Capitol Hill meeting “was very detailed,” the source said. The tents were dubbed “port courts,” and they were described as a way to supplement traditional, already crowded immigration courts near the border.

The source said that the tents were being considered for Brownsville, Donna, Laredo, Del Rio, and El Paso in Texas; Nogales and Yuma in Arizona; as well as Calexico and San Diego. Of those cities, three or four will be chosen to host courts in tents, the source said.

It’s possible that some of the cities have already been picked. Earlier this week, U.S. media and Mexican media noted that San Luis Río Colorado will soon begin to receive migrants apprehended in Yuma. Reuters and the Associated Press reported that migrants caught in Laredo will be sent to that city’s Mexican twin, Nuevo Laredo. Mexican media also reported that migrants in Eagle Pass, Texas, will be sent across the border to Piedras Negras and to immigrant court in Laredo. It is still not clear if Yuma or Laredo will be chosen for tent courts: Migrants might still be sent to traditional courts elsewhere in Texas and Arizona.

If implemented as described in the Capitol Hill briefing, the mass proceedings will severely undermine civil liberties, not to mention the national immigration court system and asylum in America. Immigrants trying to make their cases will be physically present for their hearings on the border. But the judges presiding by video will be hundreds or thousands of miles away, in cities such as San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.

It is still not clear if immigrants’ lawyers will be allowed in the tents with their clients, said Levy, the El Paso immigration attorney who spoke to a government official about the new plan. She said she has heard that it’s “quite possible” that attorneys will have to commute to the courts of the judges presiding by video.

Information that the activists and policy groups have received indicates that immigration reporters and observers located at the border will also be banned from local proceedings. Instead, they will have to travel to the judges’ far-flung courts in the interior. The task of the public and the media will be further complicated by the fact that asylum cases often change judges and cities on short notice. Immigrants, too, will lose their ability to have family and witnesses attend court with them.  

If all this is not bad enough, the tent scheme would put the entire immigration court system on track to break down. Nationally, the courts employ only about 400 judges. At the Capitol Hill meeting, DHS said that 200 will be reassigned to MPP cases. With only half of the judges left to handle their customary dockets, the average waiting time to resolve immigration cases, which is already two years, will likely increase.

The situation already is “surreal,” according to Levy. “I have never seen so much crying in court,” she said. “People are so afraid to go back to Mexico. Sometimes the proceedings have to stop because the crying is so loud that the recording equipment can’t pick up words.” Levy expects the crying to get worse if the tent plan is implemented — and fears that no one who cares will be inside them to hear it.

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