For the past 18 days, a group of more than a dozen protesters have demonstrated outside a big white tent on the banks of the Rio Grande in Brownsville.
The tent serves as a pop-up immigration court built to hear thousands of asylum hearings for migrants waiting in Mexico under the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as Remain in Mexico.
“Even the name is such a paradox, Migrant Protection Protocols,” said Patty Brown, one of the protesters.
MPP forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases unfold in U.S. immigration court instead of waiting inside the U.S. At least 56,000 people have been sent back to Mexico so far.
The Trump administration has said MPP weeds out false asylum claims and shortens wait times for migrants.
Brown said to see the reality of MPP, all you need to do is look across the Rio Grande into Matamoros, Mexico — Brownsville’s sister city.
“So here’s the deal with Migrant Protection Protocols: Families have to live in nylon tents in places that are declared too dangerous for Americans to visit,” Brown said. “How is that any form of protection?”
More than 2,500 men, women and children are living there in squalid conditions in a tent encampment. These migrants seek protection in the U.S., and they wait for their chance to one day be escorted by immigration authorities to this court.
The scene here — a big white tent court on one side of the river and a growing tent encampment on the other side — is what MPP looks like in Brownsville and Matamoros. Brown said she and others will protest this for as long as they can.
“This is expected to last until MPP is stopped,” Brown said.
The tent court in Brownsville is one of two facilities the federal government operates on the border. The other is in Laredo.
Neither was accessible to the public when they first opened in September.
Erin Thorn Vela, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said it took five months for the federal government to allow people into the proceedings — and access is still very limited.
“A fellow from the Texas Civil Rights Project attempted to enter the tent court with a piece of paper and a pen, and he was turned away,” Thorn Vela said. “When pushed, guards at the facility were unable to articulate any sort of written policy, or any law that prevents members of the public from doing something as simple as putting in pencil and paper to be able to make notations.”
Thorn Vela said this doesn’t happen in regular immigration court, where there is a tradition of asylum hearings being open to the public.
“People are not being permitted in these tent court facilities for merits proceedings, which is when the entirety of a person’s case is going to be put on trial,” Thorn Vela said.
Kennji Kizuka, a researcher with Human Rights First, said sitting-in on merits hearings at the tent immigration courts are important because that’s where a judge hears the details of an asylum seeker’s story.
“Having member of the public present is a form of accountability,” Kizuka said. “It’s a way to ensure that due process is being done, and especially when someone is unrepresented, there may be no one who knows what’s happening in that hearing if members of the public are excluded.”
Immigration judges are not physically present at these tent courts. They speak to the migrants via teleconference from a different location. Kizuka said one of those places is the Fort Worth Adjudication Center.
“No member of the public can go to the Fort Worth Adjudication Center to watch those hearings,” Kizuka said. “So [at] those hearings with judges at that office building, no one can get in if they’re not allowed to watch those hearings at the tent court.”
While trying to access the tent immigration court in Brownsville earlier this month, TPR was barred from bringing in pen and paper to take notes and was told merits proceedings were closed, even if the asylum seeker gave permission. These and other restrictions have prevented migrants from having their loved ones in court.
Ray Rodriguez is an asylum seeker from Cuba and recently had a final hearing.
“They took me to where it was going to happen, and I was shocked that it was in this tiny room where there was just space for the lawyer, me and the court clerk,” Rodriguez said. “I had friends that were coming, and I knew then that that was not going to happen.”
Rodriguez’s friend, Felicia Rangel Samponaro, tried to go to his hearing, but private security guards at the entrance of the tent court in Brownsville didn’t let her in.
“I don’t know why Brownsville tent court is so different, but they don’t abide by the U.S. laws for immigration court,” Samponaro said. “They gave us the option of staying and listening to other peoples’ hearings or just leaving.”
Immigrataion Court operates under the Justice Department. TPR reached out to the Executive Office for Immigration Review for comment on issues with access to the tent courts and was referred to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Those agencies did recently provide a tour of the other tent court facility in Laredo.
Gregory Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, was on the tour. He posted a video on Twitter saying his organization was denied entry into a merits hearing, but the next day that changed.
“They told us that yesterday’s descion was a mistake and that they would be providing access in the future,” Chen said. “This kind of access in the future will have to be on an individual basis and they will only provide it on the day of when we arrive at the facility.”
I was granted access to observe merits asylum case at tent court.
VIDEO details observer access rule + the case handled by Rolando Vasquez, @AILANational member
— Gregory Chen (@GregChenAILA) January 24, 2020
On Wednesday — which marked one year since the rollout of MPP — TPR asked security guards at the entrance of the tent court in Brownsville if merits hearing were now open to the public.
Several guards said no, but a supervisor later clarified that they are open. However, that is only if someone gets permission from the asylum seeker, their lawyer (if they have one), as well as the immigration judge. On top of that, there must also be available space in the courtroom.
Immigrant rights activists say the lack of clear guidelines on public access to the MPP tent courts ensures that the public will not know what is being done in their name.