Journalists Blocked from Attending Secretive Immigration Tent Courts

Normally, the press can observe immigration court proceedings. But journalists are being turned away from the first asylum hearings in Laredo under the Migrant Protection Protocols.

The tent court facility in Laredo.
The tent court facility in Laredo. Gus Bova

Normally, the press can observe immigration court proceedings. But journalists are being turned away from the first asylum hearings in Laredo under the Migrant Protection Protocols.

The tent court facility in Laredo.
The tent court facility in Laredo. Gus Bova

The Trump administration is conducting asylum hearings in makeshift tent facilities by the ports of entry in Laredo and Brownsville for migrants who have been forced to wait months in Mexico under the chaotic Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program. And no, you journalists and concerned members of the public, you do not get to observe the proceedings. 

On Wednesday, Buzzfeed writer Adolfo Flores reported he was turned away at the Laredo tent court by a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official who said only “law enforcement, attorneys with clients, and contractors” were allowed. Flores confirmed that the first MPP hearings at the Laredo tent facility were being held Wednesday. Reportedly, hearings in Brownsville start Thursday. Members of the press are normally allowed to observe immigration court proceedings.

Two Laredo residents, Selene Cruz and Silvia Castaños, also attempted to attend as court observers and were turned away, according to an audio recording they sent to the Observer.

DHS has kept its port courts shrouded in mystery. I and reporters from other outlets have emailed both DHS and the Department of Justice dozens of times to ask when MPP hearings would begin and whether press would be allowed. They have stubbornly refused to provide information. On Monday, I traveled to Laredo based on information that hearings might begin then. When I arrived, no hearings appeared to be taking place. When I asked Customs and Border Protection officials in Laredo when they would begin, I got no answers

On Wednesday, about three hours after journalists and community members were turned away in Laredo, DHS finally provided a statement, in which a spokesperson said the tent facilities “will not be open to in-person public access, including media access.” The statement goes on to say that reporters will have access to the San Antonio immigration court, where judges will be hearing MPP cases via video. That will put reporters some 150 miles from the migrants—a primary source of information regarding these hearings.

Migrants returning to Nuevo Laredo under the Migrant Protection Protocols.
Migrants returning to Nuevo Laredo under the Migrant Protection Protocols.  Gus Bova

Over 6,000 migrants who arrived in Laredo have been returned to Mexico under MPP; more than 6,000 in Brownsville have also been sent back across the border. Nationwide, more than 42,000 have been returned. In some cases, they have been sent to the city of Monterrey and even as far as Chiapas, well over 1,000 miles away from the U.S. border. Migrants have faced numerous ordeals in Mexico—everything from homelessness to assault. Many have given up and gone home.

In the places where hearings have been going on for months inside normal immigration courts, like San Diego and El Paso, court data show that almost no migrants have found lawyers to represent them. Journalists have recently reported difficulties observing hearings in El Paso too.

There will be a court hearing in California to determine the legality of MPP on October 1. At stake will be the due process rights of the asylum-seekers in the program. 

If any immigration court proceedings need public monitoring, it’s the exact ones that the Trump administration is walling us off from.

This post has been updated to reflect an audio recording sent to the Observer and a statement from DHS.

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Gus Bova reports on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements for the Observer. He formerly worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]


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