BROWNSVILLE, Texas — The Trump administration recently agreed to open its “tent courts,” makeshift tribunals where immigrants made to wait in Mexico attend hearings, but lawyers and legal observers say the setup still fails to give full access to the public.
Attorneys and advocates said the government is keeping the public out of what some consider to be the most important part of immigration court proceedings by using judges located inside a private Fort Worth, Texas, facility. The hearings are where immigrants get the opportunity to present arguments and evidence as to why they should be allowed to stay in the United States.
Judges at the Fort Worth Immigration Adjudication Center, which the public has no access to, are overseeing the individual merits hearings via video that’s beamed into tent courts in Brownsville, Texas. At the same time, no one is allowed to attend the hearings in person, effectively closing off public access.
“It’s highly problematic,” said Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Using these adjudication centers and judges is clearly intentional. The agency is trying to operate these cases in secret.”
The facilities in Fort Worth and Falls Church, Virginia, were created by the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which oversees the nation’s immigration courts, as a way to reduce its growing case backlog.
Denying public access is especially concerning because most immigrants in the “Remain in Mexico” program, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, are not represented by an attorney, Lynch said. An analysis of 56,004 MPP hearings found that only 4% of immigrants are represented by a lawyer; the rest have to make their case on their own.
“Many immigrants are walking into these tent courts unrepresented,” Lynch said. “And there’s no way to observe them.”
EOIR refused to confirm whether judges at the adjudication center were listening to merits hearings in Brownsville. But attorneys with clients at the Brownsville tent court confirmed to BuzzFeed News that they’ve had future cases rescheduled to judges at the Fort Worth adjudication center.
“All immigration judges hear all case types. Due to pending litigation, we have no further comment,” said Kathryn Mattingly, a spokesperson for EOIR.
The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
By Adolfo Flores for BUZZFEED.NEWS
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