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Tent courthouses for migrants to open along Texas border, as questions abound

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

In recent days, the Border Patrol returned an average of 125 migrants daily to Laredo's sister city, Nuevo Laredo. Borderwide, roughly 1,200 migrants are returned to Mexico daily, officials told Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz.

Immigration judges have been hearing "Remain in Mexico" cases in San Diego and El Paso for months, but in bricks-and-mortar courtrooms, open to the public as space allows.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents Laredo, and Saenz said they were told by Homeland Security officials that immigration judges in San Antonio would conduct the tent court hearings via video conference starting Sept. 16, which is Independence Day, a national holiday in Mexico. Migrants' attorneys said at least one person was scheduled to appear before that, on Thursday.

Adding to the confusion, attorneys said they have been unable to determine which federal agency controls access to the tents and whether they would be allowed to meet with asylum-seekers there privately before a client's hearing.

"It's definitely going to affect the ability to represent clients and to help these asylum-seekers. Attorneys have no idea where to file the paperwork necessary for these hearings; they don't know what court will have jurisdiction; they don't know if they're supposed to go to the court where their client is or where the judge will be. We don't know if there will be interpreters," said Perez-Davis. "What we're going to see is massive confusion."

Denise Gilman, co-director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, said she has been visiting migrants in Nuevo Laredo, including one scheduled to appear at the tent courthouse this week. She said the clinic did not plan to represent them because the logistics made it impossible to meet migrants before their hearings.

"I just don't want to partake of a system that is not set up to adjudicate but, rather, to exclude ... It is really just a mock-up of a court," she said.

A spokeswoman for the federal immigration courts referred questions about the tent courts to Homeland Security. Spokesmen for Homeland Security and Border Patrol said they were still trying to clarify who would be given access to the tent courts.

A Homeland Security official said that the agency "understands the need to protect the privacy and due process rights of individuals who will appear at these locations" and promised that the agency would quickly "determine how best to balance these rights with the special security issues that we must confront at an active port of entry."


Cuellar, a former lawyer who toured the tents in July, said they sit alongside a dozen air-conditioned metal containers where he was told lawyers would be allowed to meet with their clients. He plans to return to tour the tent court again Sept. 16.

"I want to make sure we look at what's the process there, where they meet with an attorney, where the video conference is going to be," he said.

Cuellar said Homeland Security's decision to reject the city's offer of near-free use of a municipal building left him feeling cynical.

"It's a waste of taxpayers' money," Cuellar said of the tents. "They're trying to get visuals: tents, barbed wire, National Guard, wall ... They're manufacturing a crisis here."

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