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Tent court hearings for migrants ramp up in Texas as lawyers decry lack of access

About half the migrants scheduled to appear in a tent courtrooms in Texas showed up for their first hearings as part of a new Trump administration tactic.
Located a short distance from the Rio Grande, the Migrant Protection Protocols Immigration Hearing Facilities in Laredo, Texas, are adjacent to the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge.
Located a short distance from the Rio Grande, the Migrant Protection Protocols Immigration Hearing Facilities in Laredo, Texas, are adjacent to the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge.NBC News

SAN ANTONIO — The ramping up of tent courts in Texas on Monday was marked by confusion and disorganization as only about half the migrants scheduled to appear showed up, most without legal representation.

San Antonio Immigration Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez oversaw initial hearings for 27 out of a scheduled 52 cases for asylum-seekers under Trump’s remain in Mexico policy. The majority of migrants did not have legal representation and when the judge asked them if they knew what was going on, she was met with silence and blank stares. During one hearing, a 6-year-old Honduran girl fell asleep on her mother's lap.

Present in the San Antonio courtroom was the judge, lawyers for the government and a translator — but the migrants were 160 miles away, along the Texas border in Laredo. The parties interacted through video on a flat-screen television.

Lisa Koop, a lawyer representing the migrants, told NBC News after the hearings that initially she met with her clients in a shipping-container like facility that had been fashioned into attorney meeting rooms. She was then escorted with her clients to the courtroom in one of the large white tent-style facilities.

"I think it's surreal to approach this facility and understand it to be a court of law," she said. "It doesn't feel like a court, it does act like a court, it doesn’t look like a court."

Koop, who is with the National Immigrant Justice Center, also questioned the ability of migrants to have due process under the circumstances.

"It's hard to advocate for them when we don't know the system we're trying to navigate on their behalf," she said. "I think it's difficult to describe this process as legitimate when you have people living in fear on the southern border in Mexico."

After the four cases with an attorney were heard, Gonzalez said, “go ahead and line them up” and the remaining migrants were led to two lines where they would step forward when numbers assigned to them were called. The cases were done in bulk with all 23 done within about 50 minutes.

During the hearing, a 6-year-old Honduran girl named Nathaly fell asleep on her mother Alejandra’s lap.

After each of the migrants had their initial hearing, the judge asked if everyone understood what was going on. The migrants sat silent with blank stares.

Gonzalez asked if anyone had a question. One man raised his hand and he began to detail his intense fear of having to reside in Mexico while he waited. The judge said she would talk to him after. Suddenly about eight more hands shot up with similar concerns.

They said they had evidence of death threats, claimed having been assaulted or mugged, and one mother said she didn’t have any money to live in Mexico and she barely had enough to come to this hearing. The man who brought her here charged here even more than they settled on when she arrived, the woman said.

The judge ordered those who said they feared living in Mexico to be referred to asylum officers for “non-refoulment” interviews to make their case to be removed from the remain in Mexico program.

The courts are part of the new Trump administration tactic and advocates and attorneys were denied access to the court, something they said was unprecedented.

Rochelle Garza, with the American Civil Liberties Union, said she was shut out of the tent courts in Brownsville, Texas.

“It flies in the face of the constitution and everything we believe to be justice in America,” Garza said. “As a lawyer to not have access to a court, it’s scary.”

While journalists were not allowed to witness the hearings from the tent courts, media were allowed in the San Antonio courthouse.

The Department of Homeland Security erected tent courts last week in two Texas border towns, Brownsville and Laredo, as part of the Department of Homeland Security's expansion of the remain in Mexico program.

The move comes as the administration has sought to decrease the strain on backlogged immigration courts and slow the influx of migrant families at the southern border. The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to request for comment.

More than 40,000 migrants have been sent back to Mexico after coming to the border as they await hearings in U.S. courts under the policy.

Officials say they want 200 migrants to appear each day in the tents in Laredo, according to The Associated Press.

Of the 27 cases heard in the first set of hearings in Laredo, only four had legal representation from Koop, a pro-bono lawyer. Immigrant rights activists have criticized the remain in Mexico policy for putting migrants' lives at risk in dangerous border cities and dramatically limiting access to legal counsel.

Koop said in court one of her clients, a man from Honduras, Josue, and his niece had been hiding in Monterrey, Mexico, because they fear for their lives. Koop said it took them hours to travel to the hearings, where migrants had to arrive at around 4 a.m. for the hearings.

Josue’s niece, Hassiel, also traveled hours to get to the hearing, according to Koop. The two were in separate cases in a family of 12 and Koop asked about their cases being consolidated as a family, which the judge said could be done at their next hearing.

Another migrant represented by Koop, Luis, had his country of origin mistakenly listed as Venezuela instead of Cuba.

The hearings lasted between five and eight minutes for each. NBC News is only using the asylum-seekers' first names out of concern for their safety.

One lawyer who was listed as representing a migrant in their case did not show up to the court.

All of the migrants had their second hearings scheduled for Oct. 16. The migrants who did not attend the hearing were ordered deported in absentia.

At the entrance of the tent courts in Laredo, an immigration official told NBC News that due to Department of Homeland Security Secretary and presidential directive, media could not access the courts due to the nature of the facility being located at a port of entry.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told NBC News from outside the tents in Laredo that he wished the tent courts would be open to the public for transparency reasons.

Cuellar said the tent facilities were a “waste of taxpayer dollars” and that the city of Laredo offered a space to house and process the migrants during this process but were turned down, instead choosing to operate these tent facilities for the next 18 months.

When asked potential reasons why only 27 of the migrants whose cases were on the docket showed up in court Monday, Garza said it was possible people may have given up on their cases after being forced to wait for months, they could have been kidnapped or faced other kinds of violence or they may not have received proper notice about their hearings.

Jodi Goodwin, a lawyer out of Brownsville who was in proceedings last week, called the tent courts a “star chamber and a farse of due process.”

Bianca Seward reported from San Antonio, Mariana Atencio reported from Laredo, Daniella Silva reported from New York.