Lawyers, advocates denied entry to immigration hearings at judicial tent city

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — One by one, immigration advocates, lawyers, journalists and interested citizens on Thursday were denied entry into the first day of immigration hearings at a new judicial tent city, video provided to Border Report shows.

The tent facility was set up at the base of the Gateway International Bridge for asylum-seekers who have been forced to wait in Mexico for their court proceedings.

This came a day after federal officials abruptly canceled a scheduled tour of the facility on Wednesday, which Border Report had been invited to attend.

On Thursday morning, immigration advocates began requesting to view the first federal immigration hearings to be held at this facility. And each one was denied entry by Department of Homeland Security police officers who were stationed at the front entrance, Texas Monthly reported.

The reasons given were that only immigration lawyers representing clients who were having hearings that day would be allowed inside, and there was no appeal process available.

Video by Texas Monthly shared with Border Report shows numerous immigration advocates attempting to watch what they told officers are supposed to be “open and public hearings.”

Border Report on Friday spoke with Efren Olivares, who is racial and economic justice program director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. He said that several of his organization’s colleagues attempted to enter the facility on Thursday morning and were also turned away.

The Texas Civil Rights Project is a nonprofit organization based in South Texas that represents many migrants pro-bono and is well known in the immigration community.

“The lack of access is just one more way in which this entire process is a flagrant disregard of the rule of law and due process,” Olivares said. “Now it’s closed to the public and it’s just counter to our justice system.”

A Department of Homeland Security police officer was stationed at the entrance to the new judicial tent facility at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas, on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, and refused entry to all except lawyers of clients with hearings that day. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Karla Vargas, a lawyer with Texas Civil Rights Project, is seen in the video repeatedly questioning the two officers who were stationed at the tent city entrance. She asked who could go in, why they were not allowed, who they could appeal to, how far in advance lawyers of migrant clients could enter, and if they were allowed private quarters to speak with their clients.

While courteous and cordial, the officers repeatedly answered that they did not have all the information and that only federal immigration judges, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers controlled the rules and regulations of this new facility.

“I don’t have a long explanation other than we are allowing in attorneys associated with clients,” an officer told Vargas.

“And they didn’t explain to you guys the reason they are limiting access to the public?” she asked.

Karla Vargas, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, asks to be let in on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, to view immigration hearings at a new judicial tent facility at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Thursday’s hearings were the first scheduled for migrants seeking asylum who were forced to wait in Mexico under the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), or “Remain in Mexico” program. Over 40,000 migrants from San Diego to El Paso, to Brownsville, have been forced to wait in Mexico this past year under President Trump’s new policy.

MPP began in South Texas in mid-July in Brownsville and the migrants scheduled for the first hearings here are believed to have been turned away on July 17, immigration advocates have told Border Report. Over 600 migrants are sleeping in the streets in a make-shift tent encampment on the other side of the bridge in Matamoros, Mexico, awaiting their court hearings.

Read a previous Border Report story on the Matamoros tent encampment here.

Immigration advocates say many migrants have reported being kidnapped, raped, forced into prostitution, and living in utter poverty and despair on the streets of Matamoros as they await the opportunity to make their claims for asylum in U.S. immigration court.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela Jr., D-Texas, whose district includes Brownsville, had helped to secure a media tour of the Gateway judicial facility on Wednesday afternoon, only to have his office informed just hours before the event that it was canceled.

“It is no wonder that Trump endears himself to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung Un. His Migrant Protection Protocol is nothing more than a glaring obliteration of our Constitutional due process protections. The Administration’s decision to block the press from the ensuing judicial process is a contemptible attack on the First Amendment,” Vela said in a statement.

On Friday afternoon, the Society for Professional Journalists issued a statement calling on the Trump Administration to grant journalists access to the facilities.

“These hearings may carry life-and-death consequences for asylum seekers. Hundreds of thousands of people have been arrested or stopped at the border in recent months, many of them asylum-seeking families,” SPJ National President Patricia Gallagher Newberry said. “What happens inside these courts are a matter of vital public interest. Barring media access is a grievous affront to transparency that prevents journalists from holding the administration to account.”

Barring media access is a grievous affront to transparency.”

SPJ National President Patricia Gallagher Newberry
Two immigration advocates shown above were among those refused entry into immigration hearings on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, at the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Although media was granted a tour of the new judicial tent facility in Laredo earlier this week prior to the start of hearings there, media have also been denied access to those immigration court hearings.

The Laredo and Brownsville facilities are equipped with video conferencing cameras, and there were reports that advocates were allowed to watch proceedings from the courtrooms of consenting judges, but not from inside the tents where the migrants are speaking. Immigration judges in Texas from El Paso, Harlingen and Port Isabel, were scheduled to hear these cases via videoconferencing.

“Observing from a judge’s chambers allows media to see only where the government-controlled camera points inside the tents,” Newberry said.

Thursday’s first day of court cases were minimal in Brownsville — only six cases on the docket.

“It was a soft launch,” Olivares said.

Efren Olivares is a racial and economic justice program director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Nevertheless, only two clients showed up and Olivares said that could be indicative of several reasons: “Maybe they were kidnapped, or maybe they are kidnapped. There could be a number of things happening. But the takeaway is that this was what the program was designed to do: To discourage them from seeking asylum in the U.S.”

This was what the program was designed to do: To discourage them from seeking asylum in the U.S.”

Efren Olivares, racial and economic justice program director for the Texas Civil Rights Project

No cases were scheduled for Friday, but Olivares said the Brownsville docket is supposed to be full on Monday. His organization plans to send lawyers to Matamoros this weekend to help advise clients who are living in the streets on how to prepare for their hearings, and what to do.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border

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