LAREDO, Texas (Border Report) — The hammering of construction workers echoes off the Rio Grande across the banks into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, as the Department of Homeland Security has started building court facilities in Laredo, Texas, to be used by asylum-seekers who starting next month could be returned to Mexico as part of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program.

DHS officials, in a court statement, last week announced that by mid-November, the Biden administration is expected to reimplement MPP, but said that the U.S. government is still awaiting approval and compliance from the Mexican government.

“The U.S. Government cannot unilaterally implement MPP without an independent decision by the GOM (government of Mexico) to accept individuals that the United States wishes to send to Mexico. As a sovereign nation, Mexico decides who it allows to cross its borders,” Blas Nuñez-Neto, DHS acting assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, wrote in a court declaration.

The Biden administration has staunchly opposed restarting the Trump-era program, however, the Supreme Court in late August refused to block a lower federal court’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by Texas and Missouri to force the administration to reimplement the remain-in-Mexico program.

Although the details are not completely worked out yet, Nuñez-Neto says construction contracts totaling $14.1 million have been issued to build “soft-sided Immigration Hearing Facilities” (IHF) in the South Texas border cities of Laredo and Brownsville.

The court facilities will be located on the same spots where they previously were built in 2019 under then-President Donald Trump, and will be the go-to location for all asylum hearings once MPP is restarted, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas, told Border Report.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is at the base of the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge in Laredo, Texas, on Oct. 18, 2021, where soft-sided immigration court buildings are being built for migrants put in MPP. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

On Monday, Cuellar took Border Report near the site in Laredo, his hometown, where crews have begun working. The facility is being built in front of the La Posada Hotel and close to international bridges I and II, formally known as the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge and Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge, respectively, that lead to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

In Brownsville, a soft-sided facility is being built near the Gateway International Bridge, which leads to Matamoros, Mexico, Cuellar said.

Both sprawling facilities were among those that many of the 70,000 asylum-seekers who were placed in MPP starting in 2019 used for court hearings with U.S. immigration judges.

Nuñez-Neto wrote in a statement to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas Amarillo Division that construction should take about a month.

“As noted in the declaration filed on Thursday, DHS is taking necessary steps to comply with the court order, which requires us to reimplement MPP in good faith. We are working to do so, despite our appeal of the court’s order, including, for example, by issuing contracts to rebuild temporary immigration-hearing facilities near the Southwest border,” a DHS spokesman told Border Report on Tuesday.

“We have made great progress and are, as a result, ready to begin reimplementing MPP in mid-November, subject to the GOM’s (government of Mexico’s) independent decision to accept those that the USG (U.S. government) seeks to return,” Nuñez-Neto wrote.

“DHS and DOS (Department of State) have sufficiently advanced discussions with the GOM to the point that we will shortly finalize and communicate to GOM a plan for reimplementation that addresses the concerns they have identified. DHS has also taken all the necessary steps to reimplement MPP — including contracting for the IHFs, working to establish robust COVID-19 protocols, and updating policies and guidelines.”

The judicial tent facility in Brownsville, Texas, as seen on Feb. 4, 2021, was built by a New York contractor that will resurrect the facility in the next month. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

The cost to operate the two facilities will be $10.5 million per month, according to the declaration. And DHS has gone ahead to execute the contracts, despite no firm commitment from Mexican officials, Nuñez-Neto said.

This is different from his statements just a month earlier and Cuellar said are indicative of several recent talks that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have had with top Mexican officials lately.

On Oct. 8, Blinken and Mayorkas traveled to Mexico City and met with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador as well as Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard and they discussed future terms for MPP and safety and security for border communities on both sides of the Rio Grande.

“DHS believes that it makes sense to proceed with contracting now despite the lack of a final decision by GOM,” he wrote.

“They’re going to set it up the way it was prior to this administration. They’re going to do the same thing in Brownsville. It’s the same contractor from New York,” said Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee.

Laredo is a South Texas border town of 225,000. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“So either you’ll have people who come to the bridge to ask for asylum or if Border Patrol catches somebody and returns them back to Mexico those persons or those people can turn around, come to the bridge and ask to be orally processed so they can get their asylum claims in,” Cuellar said.

Most of the hearings in Laredo will be with immigration judges in San Antonio, Cuellar said.

Cuellar said he has asked the Biden administration to ensure that migrants returned under MPP have access to legal aid.

The other big concern is for their safety and security, as well as that of Mexican border communities, according to Nuñez-Neto. Other issues to be worked out with Mexico include:

  • Whether Mexico will receive non-Spanish speaking migrants, such as Haitians. Previously Mexico only accepted the return of migrants from Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil.
  • The exact time and location that asylum-seekers will be accepted back on a daily basis.
  • How many individuals can be returned daily.
  • The nationalities that Mexico will receive back.
  • Assurances by the United States that vulnerable individuals — the sick, elderly, or LGBTQI — will not be sent to Mexico because “this placed an undue burden on the services provided by local communities in Mexico.”

Mexico also has concerns about the United States’ 1.45 million backlogged immigration cases and the length of time that the migrants could be waiting in Mexico.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research nonprofit from Syracuse University that tracks all U.S. immigration cases, reports the backlog is the highest in history.

Graphic by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC)

Migrant advocates say MPP is a cruel process and further traumatizes vulnerable migrants who endure kidnappings and other violence in trying to claim asylum in the United States.

Cuellar complained it’s “a lot of money” but said the Biden administration must comply with court rulings. He urges that the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) actively get involved when MPP is reimplemented to ensure protections are in place for the migrants, as well as border communities.

A migrant encampment in Matamoros, which sprang up in the summer of 2019, grew to 4,000 asylum-seekers and was the cause of much criticism by Mexican officials for the filthy conditions where hundreds of children also lived.

A migrant child is seen outside his family’s tent on Jan. 17, 2020, in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

 “We’ve seen what happens when people don’t follow an orderly process to get into the United States,” Cuellar said. “Just to have people rush across the Rio Grande is not the way we’re supposed to be having this process.”

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz told Border Report that last week DHS officials called him to inform that construction of the courts would start this week. And he hopes they will follow through to ensure that migrants are not let loose in his city of 225,000.

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz is seen at City Hall in Laredo, Texas, on Oct. 18, 2021. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“They did call basically notifying me, the mayor for the city of Laredo, that the MPP program would begin shortly by way that they had to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling and that they would soon begin (construction). So we’re accustomed to it. We had it before. It continues here. That is something the federal government has done before and it will begin again, restart again,” Saenz said.

Saenz added that the UNHCR was involved in Laredo when MPP was previously. There were about four migrant centers in Nuevo Laredo that helped the asylum-seekers. And he blames Congress for not enacting immigration reform to rectify the situation on the border.

“Ideally, if they’re entitled to asylum if I were them I’d want to get processed as soon as possible but unfortunately Congress hasn’t moved to change even to possibly retain or bring down immigration judges where they can have more presence on the border and they can hear cases and adjudicate it accordingly,” Saenz said.