Tent Courts: Not Really Due Process

treating refugees as the problem is the problem

The asylum seeker stands inside the giant tent, facing a video screen that shows a far-away judge. She is tired, she is afraid, she is lucky—she got to court and she will get another court date, months in the future, but she will not be immediately ordered deported. Instead, she will be sent back to Mexico with her children, to look for a shelter or to live on the streets, trying to avoid kidnappers until her next court date. 

The judge enters orders of removal for dozens of other asylum seekers who did not manage to survive the weeks on Mexican streets, remember their court date, get to the gate by 4:30 a.m., and show up for this hearing. The orders mean that they will not be allowed to re-enter the United States or to apply for asylum in the future. No matter what their reasons are—kidnapped, lost, sick, beaten—they will not be allowed back to the court to explain what happened. 

Most asylum seekers at these tent courts do not have lawyers. They have been kept in Mexico, far from U.S. legal assistance. A few manage to connect with lawyers despite the barriers: they are the lucky ones. Even then, they can speak to their lawyers only briefly before court and not at all after court. 

Immigration lawyer Jodi Goodwin sends reports from the border:

“My client was told to show up at the bridge at 4:30am for a 12:30 pm hearing. Why? What does it take 8 hours to do to let a mom and her two children in the tent courts?

“They took their shoelaces….again. That waiting room for children they showed off in tours that was filled with colorful shelves of toys, books, and crayons….nah the 4 year old and 10 year old didn’t get to play for the hours they waited.

“No breakfast, no lunch. One bottle of water for each and some Sabritas.

“Fake addresses on documents the government filed in court.

“No simultaneous interpretation.

“Can’t talk to your client after court…CBP says it is not allowed but has nothing to show what the rules are.” 

The Texas Observer reports further on the judges and courts and barriers to getting legal representation: 

“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. …

Associated Press offers another account of court proceedings, difficult to report because reporters and the public are generally barred from the tents, making these proceedings secret:

“The court in Laredo opened with a judge who appeared by videoconference. Critics have denounced the proceedings because they are closed to the public and difficult for attorneys to access to provide legal representation.

“One by one, the migrants stood up inside the tent and said they were afraid to be sent back to Mexico. The group included a woman from Honduras cradling her 4-year-old daughter, a Salvadoran man who said he was fleeing death threats and another man who said he was in hiding while he awaited a chance to enter the U.S….

“One woman said she had to pay someone to bring her back for her hearing. Another person said she had been kidnapped and mugged….

“A second tent court is in Brownsville. Journalists are barred from the tents, even though immigration court hearings are generally open to the public. Unlike in criminal proceedings, public defenders are not provided in immigration cases. Few migrants can afford a lawyer.”

This is not due process. This is not the way courts are supposed to work in the United States. This is the face that the U.S. immigration system shows to asylum seekers fleeing violence in their home countries.


About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet, www.tcdailyplanet.net, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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