On Monday morning, 52 asylum-seekers were scheduled to appear in court at a complex of tent structures hastily constructed next to one of Laredo’s international bridges. More than 150 miles away in San Antonio, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez sat in her immigration court waiting for the supplicants to appear on a television screen, as I and a few other observers looked on.
Under Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), the asylum-seekers had spent about two months waiting in Mexico, where many migrants have suffered kidnappings and assaults.
Only 26 of the asylum-seekers, half the total, made it to their hearing Monday. The rest, presumably, were stuck somewhere in Mexico, or had given up on their asylum cases and returned to their home countries. In Nuevo Laredo, returned migrants have been pressured by Mexican officials into taking buses to the city of Monterrey and even Chiapas, on the other side of the country. Nuevo Laredo is dangerous: A migrant shelter director was disappeared there over a month ago, reportedly after protecting Cubans in his care from kidnappers.
Only four of the migrants arrived Monday with attorneys, confirming lawyers’ claims that migrants in MPP are being denied reasonable access to counsel, which is key for navigating complicated immigration proceedings. One of the attorneys, Lisa Koop with the National Immigrant Justice Center, stressed to the judge that some of her clients were living in Monterrey and it was very difficult for them to pay for and arrange safe transport to Laredo.
Monday’s proceedings were just initial hearings; all the migrants will need to appear for court at least one more time before their case is decided. For the migrants who made it, the judge set another court hearing for October 16. As she was wrapping up, one father, there with his wife and young son, rose from his chair in Laredo to ask whether he had to return to Mexico. “I’m not in a position to demand anything, but I want to say, I’m with my family, and I’m very afraid of returning to Mexico,” he said through the video screen. He said that he had been kidnapped.
The judge told the father he would be given a separate interview with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) officer about his fear of returning to Mexico. She then asked if there were any more questions, and hands flew up all over the screen. Seven more migrants said they’d also been assaulted or kidnapped or otherwise feared returning to Mexico. One complained that she had no money so it was difficult for her to get to the hearings, and she was about to be kicked out of the housing she had found. All were later sent off to interviews with a CIS officer. But in other border cities where MPP began months earlier than in Laredo, the vast majority of these requests have been denied, meaning the migrants were returned to Mexico again anyway.
At times, the judge seemed ill-informed about how MPP works. At one point, she turned to the government prosecutors in the room and asked whether the Mexican government was providing the migrants housing. One of the attorneys said he did not know. (The answer, generally, is no). She also advised the woman who said she had no money or housing to call a list of pro bono attorneys for help with that. But the U.S.-based nonprofits on that list, which the government provides to all migrants in MPP, don’t and can’t handle transportation and housing logistics in Mexico.
Elibizabeth Almanza, outreach coordinator for the legal services nonprofit American Gateways, was present at the Monday hearings. She said her group and others are overwhelmed with calls from migrants in MPP and unable to find enough lawyers to work on such difficult cases for little or no money. Asylum cases require gathering evidence and reconstructing clients’ life stories, work made much more difficult when the migrants are transient and unstable in Mexico.
Most of the migrants who did not show up Monday were “ordered removed” to their home countries—meaning they’ll be subject to deportation if they return to the United States. Most were from Guatemala and Honduras; one was from Venezuela. One absent migrant was ordered removed to Mexico and had Mexican listed as her nationality on the judge’s docket—a seeming violation of the rules of MPP which exclude Mexicans from the policy. Court data compiled by Syracuse University show 36 Mexicans had been included in MPP as of August 1. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.
Last week, the Supreme Court allowed a Trump policy known colloquially as “Asylum Ban 2.0” to take effect, which requires migrants to have applied for asylum and been denied in a country they passed through before reaching the United States. Under that measure, nearly all migrants in MPP who entered the United States on or after July 16—the day the rule was originally issued—are ineligible for asylum, but they may still qualify for more difficult to obtain forms of protections: namely, withholding of removal or protection under the United Nations Convention against Torture. Legal wrangling will continue on that front.
Members of the public are forbidden from attending proceedings at the tent courts in Laredo and Brownsville. The Los Angeles Times spoke to migrants at the Laredo bridge Monday morning and recounted stories of people who had arrived for their hearings. Some carried all of their belongings and meager amounts of money. Most had no legal representation.
Initial hearings will continue for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, a lawsuit challenging the legality of MPP continues to play out, with a hearing scheduled for October 1.
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