Tent courts are being opened in Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, to try immigration cases under President Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Asylum applicants whose cases are heard in the tent courts will be connected through video conference technology with immigration judges located in traditional courtrooms. According to the Department of Homeland Security, these tent courts will be closed to the public because they are located on secure government property.
What Is the Purpose of the Tent Courts?
The volume of cases for immigrants seeking asylum has become so great that existing immigration courts have become overwhelmed. The government plans to use the tent courts to hear cases from applicants in the Migrant Protection Protocols (also known as the “Remain in Mexico”) program. Policy under the program dictates that immigrants who cross into the U.S. must be returned to Mexico to wait for a court date.
At least 42,000 people seeking asylum in the U.S. have been sent back to cities in Mexico, including Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros, and Nuevo Laredo, to await hearings. The government says the tent courts will allow judges to hear asylum cases in weeks or months, rather than years, as typically occurs with cases heard in traditional courts.
How Are Tent Court Operations Different than Traditional Court Proceedings?
These cases are being heard in temporary facilities on U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) property. Two towering white tents, surrounded by a cluster of smaller tents, have been erected at the border crossing in Brownsville, across from the Chamber of Commerce and a local performing arts center. The entire border crossing area, including the tents, is surrounded by a brick wall and razor wire-topped fencing.
Because they are located on secure government property, these tent courts are closed to the public. Traditional U.S. Courts are open for the public to witness most court proceedings and to view daily dockets of cases. The public traditionally has access to the list of cases each day, including the immigrant’s name and home country, the general nature of the case, and whether or not the applicant has a lawyer. In many cases, immigration advocates and lawyers can only gain access to immigrants they are representing by meeting them in court.
Some immigrant advocates claim that barring public access deprives these immigrants of another key characteristic of being in a courtroom in the U.S. They also claim that the videoconferencing process can cause further delays in a backlogged immigration court system, with nearly a million cases already pending. According to the government, the courtrooms where the judges are sitting are open, the same as all other U.S. courts, and the tent court systems will allow immigration cases to be heard more quickly – in weeks or months, as opposed to years.