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Tent Courts For Asylum Seekers Now Open To The Public. Kind Of.

The outside of a MPP court facility in Brownsville is guarded with barbed wire.
Reynaldo Leaños Jr. | Texas Public Radio
The outside of a MPP court facility in Brownsville is guarded with barbed wire.

The Trump administration has lifted a ban on public and press access to immigration hearings in tented courts in Brownsville and Laredo.

Tent court facilities opened in September, with asylum seekers answering questions from judges who appear on screens via teleconference. This system is meant to serve as a temporary border court after the enactment of the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols, which requires immigrants to remain in Mexico for months as they wait for their claims to be heard.

The MPP policy was introduced in January 2019 and has slowly expanded across the southern U.S.-Mexico border, which has forced more than 54,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their claims make their way through U.S. immigration courts.

Last Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it expanded the MPP policy to the Nogales Port of Entry south of Tucson, Arizona, making it the seventh Port of Entry where the policy is being enforced.

Here's what happened when TPR reporter Reynaldo Leaños Jr. was granted access to the Brownsville tented facility on Monday:

Wasn’t able to see final hearing take place, even though asylum seeker said it was okay

The next hearing for most people I saw today is in March, so they’ll wait in MX pic.twitter.com/oUBcj4cKQ3— Reynaldo Leaños Jr. (@ReynaldoLeanos) January 6, 2020

In about an hour, a judge heard 14 cases — none of the migrants had legal representation. They were all sent back to Mexico to wait for their next court date in February or March. Another 15 didn't show up. 

Erin Thorn-Vela from the Texas Civil Rights Project said she’s glad these courts are now open to the public, but that it should have been done since the opening of these facilities months ago.

“I think it’s very important that the public be let in, not only because it’s the law, but because these are things that are being done in our name, and it’s important that we know what’s going on in these courts,” she said.

A statement from a Department of Homeland Security explained the policy change: "In an effort to ensure consistency, clarity, and transparency, the acting secretary directed the components to formalize guidance for public access to these facilities, consistent with immigration courts across the country."

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

Bri Kirkham can be reached at Bri@TPR.org and on Twitter at @BriKirk.

Dominic can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio

Reynaldo Leanos Jr. covers immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border for Texas Public Radio.
Bri Kirkham comes to San Antonio after living most of her life in southern Indiana. She graduated from Ball State University with degrees in journalism and telecommunications.
Dominic Anthony Walsh covers energy, the environment and public health for Texas Public Radio. He focuses on stories that reveal how major changes in climate systems, energy markets and public health policies affect communities in his hometown, San Antonio, and across the state.