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"Farce of due process": Lawyers denounce new border tent courts for migrants

Asylum cases heard in "tent courts"

Their first court hearing on American soil was scheduled for 12:30 p.m., but they were instructed by U.S. officials to show up at 4:30 a.m. to one of the ports of entry connecting Brownsville, Texas and the Mexican border city of Matamoros, a hotspot in turf wars between rival cartels that the State Department warns Americans not to travel to. 

After traveling through the streets of this dangerous city in northern Mexico in the pitch-black dark, the 30-year-old Honduran mother and her two children presented themselves to U.S. border officials, who confiscated many of their belongings, including her cellphone and their shoelaces, according to the family's attorney. They then waited for hours until their hearing, which, to their surprise, was not held in a brick-and-mortar courthouse but in a facility surrounded by a barbed wire fence that resembled a detention center. 

The family was among the first migrants placed in the so-called "Remain in Mexico" program to appear before one of two newly unveiled tent facilities serving as makeshift immigration courts in south Texas. Unlike the vast majority of migrants subject to the controversial policy, they were represented in court by Jodi Goodwin, one of the few American attorneys helping those returned to Matamoros, where the family is effectively homeless, living in a tent camp with hundreds of other people hoping to seek asylum in the U.S.

Citing security concerns, officials have not allowed the press to observe hearings in these new facilities, where migrants sit before an immigration judge working remotely and appearing via video conference. But attorneys like Goodwin who have been allowed inside have denounced them as yet another obstacle for tens of thousands of migrants subject to Remain in Mexico, formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), and required to wait Mexico for their hearings.

"It's not only discouraging, it is so embarrassing that the people who are participating in this absolute, complete farce of due process are actually barred lawyers," Goodwin told CBS News. "They took the same oath that I took."

Immigration Tent Courts
Migrants who are applying for asylum in the U.S. wait in a holding area at a new tent courtroom at the Migration Protection Protocols Immigration Hearing Facility, Tuesday, September 17, 2019, in Laredo, Texas. Eric Gay / AP

On Tuesday, Goodwin went to one of the two courtrooms the Trump administration has built using tents and shipping containers. The facilities in Brownsville and Laredo were constructed solely to hold hearings for migrants placed in MPP and the administration is hoping to operate them, along with future ones, through $155 million it diverted from disaster relief funds earlier in the summer. 

Goodwin said 10 migrants were scheduled for a hearing that day, with seven of them, including the family she represents, making it to the makeshift court. She said she was able to speak with the Honduran mother, who came to facility with her 10-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, for 30 minutes before the hearing. 

Although the first hearings for migrants placed in this program are usually quick, especially if they are not represented, Goodwin said her hearing ran for more than two hours because of several concerns she raised before the judge. For one, she told the judge and the government lawyer who appeared remotely from the immigration court in Harlingen, Texas, that U.S. officials had given her client a notice to appear in court that included the wrong address.

Because many of those subject to MPP do not have permanent homes, officials often include the addresses of shelters in Mexico in notices to the migrants. But Goodwin said she told the judge that her client was homeless and had never been in the shelter listed in the notice.  

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection tent facility is seen in an aerial photo in Brownsville
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection tent facility where immigration hearings are held by video teleconference is seen in an aerial photo in Brownsville, Texas, on September 12, 2019. DRONE BASE / REUTERS

Goodwin said she also objected five times during the hearing to ask the interpreter to translate the entire hearing, not just the judge's questions to the Honduran mother. "But the judge just sort of shrugged her shoulders and was like, 'Oh we don't have the capability to do that,'" she said. 

Before the hearing ended, Goodwin told the judge her client was scared of returning to Mexico and requested she be referred to a so-called "non-refoulement" interview, offered when migrants express fear about returning to the country that the government seeks to send them to. Goodwin tried to talk to the Honduran mother after the hearing but was barred from doing so by a government-contracted security guard, who said her client would be interviewed by an asylum officer via telephone inside the hearing facility. 

Goodwin did not hear from her client until late Wednesday night. The Honduran mother did not pass the non-refoulement interview and was returned to Mexico to await her next court hearing. 

For Goodwin, her experience inside Brownsville's new makeshift immigration court highlights the concerns advocates like her have been raising about the Remain in Mexico policy since it began. She was particularly worried about migrants, especially families with small children like her homeless clients, having to find their way to a port of entry very early in the morning to attend their court hearings.

Reached for comment, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official told CBS News the agency instructs migrants to show up 4 hours before their court hearing starts "to allow for processing and transportation."

Mexico US Asylum Seekers
Migrants who are applying for asylum in the U.S. walk to a border bridge as they make their way to their appointment with U.S. authorities, in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Tuesday, September 17, 2019. Fernando Llano / AP

Goodwin said the program, which is being challenged in court, will continue to place insurmountable odds for migrants to find shelter, employment and safety in border cities like Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo, located in the state of Tamaulipas, the only Mexican border state to have a level 4 State Department travel warning.

"It makes the process a billion times harder for everybody involved, simply because of the fact that it's extremely difficult to access clients," she added. "Not every lawyer is willing to run into a level 4 security threat assessment — that's the same as Aleppo, Syria and Kabul, Afghanistan."

Charanya Krishnaswami, an attorney at Amnesty International, and her team tried to observe hearings at the other makeshift facility in Laredo this week but were denied entry. She called the restriction "unprecedented," noting that even immigration hearings held in some detention facilities operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement are open to the public. 

"By regulations, these courts are supposed to be open to the public. And the reason why is that if they are not, all sorts of things can happen in secret," she said. 

Krishnaswami said these new facilities are part of an effort by administration to fast-track hearings for those placed in the MPP program and issue as many deportations as quickly as possible. 

"Having public observers and legal counsel will slow the process because there are serious procedural problems which how this program is operating," she said. 

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