McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Immigration hearings nationwide have been suspended through April 22 due to COVID-19 concerns for employees and thousands of asylum-seekers who have been forced to remain in Mexico while they await court proceedings, federal U.S. officials announced.

Asylum-seekers, however, still are required to go to their port of entry judicial court on their required court hearing date or face deportation, and that could potentially expose them to coronavirus, concerned immigrant advocates said.

“It’s definitely not a good idea,” immigration lawyer Jodi Goodwin, of Harlingen in South Texas, told Border Report on Tuesday.

In a joint statement late Monday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees all U.S. immigration court proceedings, officials wrote:

“Due to circumstances resulting from COVID-19, all Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) master calendar and merit hearings presently scheduled through April 22 will be rescheduled. Neither the MPP program nor any hearings will be cancelled.

Any individual with an MPP hearing date through April 22 should present themselves at their designated port of entry on their previously scheduled date to receive a tear sheet and hearing notice containing their new hearing dates. DHS and EOIR are deeply committed to ensuring that individuals ‘have their day in court’ while also ensuring the health and safety of aliens, our frontline officers, immigration court professionals, and our citizens.”

Over 60,000 asylum-seekers have been returned to Mexico as part of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Many wait for several months for their first court appearance, during which they are given documents to fill out and to submit on their subsequent scheduled hearings. Most go through a series of up to four hearings, including merit hearings to determine if they have legitimate claims to seek asylum in the United States.

The new regulations put migrants at perilous risk to their health if they are to venture out to ports of entry and wait for their new hearing dates alongside hundreds of others expected in court that same day. If they fail to do so, they face double perils: They could be expelled from Mexico if they don’t have court-date documents known as “tear sheets,” which serve as their permission papers to remain in Mexico; and the United States could order their cases dismissed if they fail to appear for court on their given dates.

“What they’re saying basically is they still have to go to the scheduled time so that they can get a new tear sheet because they need that tear sheet because that’s the only thing that they have that will allow them to have permission to be in Mexico. So what happens is that once they get that tear sheet then they can get a new permit to be in Mexico. It really has everything to do with making sure that they have a permit in Mexico,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin has an indigenous MPP client from Guatemala who was scheduled to appear today in the Brownsville, Texas judicial tent court, which is located at the base of the Gateway International Bridge across from Matamoros, Mexico. Another of her MPP clients, from Honduras, was scheduled in court tomorrow on a case involving religious persecution, she said.

I think we’ll see a rash of in abstentions because people will not know what to do.”

Jodi Goodwin, immigration lawyer

Goodwin was able to inform her client of the new rules with no problem, but she worries about others that don’t have legal counsel.

Jodi Goodman, center, an immigration lawyer from Harlingen, Texas, is seen on Sept. 14, 2019, helping migrants who live at a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, with legal questions. She led a group of lawyers across the border that day to help the thousands living at the camp. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Over 3,000 migrants live in an outdoor tent encampment near the bridge on the banks of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, which has no mailing facilities and which puts them at odds for communication. Many have self-isolated inside their tents after the United States and Mexico on Friday announced it was closing its border to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“The fact is that there’s no way they can mail them a hearing notice,” Goodwin said. “As of right now, people still need to go to the bridge to get them a new sheet.”

But some immigration lawyers are reporting that clients are being turned away by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials as they try to cross the bridge for their new court papers, including in South Texas and El Paso.

Read a border Report story on migrants being turned away in El Paso.

Efren Olivares, racial and economic justice program director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, based in Alamo, Texas, said he has heard reports of migrants being turned away from bridges, despite federal officials telling them to appear on the bridges. “Yes, they are being turned away, including children,” he said.

Texas Civil Rights Lawyer Erin Thorn Vela is seen on Sept. 14, 2019, helping migrants fill out asylum claim forms at the migrant tent camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Erin Thorn Vela, a lawyer with Olivares’ nonprofit group, said she has been reaching out to confirm the extent of rejections and where and when they are happening, and she is working to rally the legal community. “I know partners, other private attorneys had that same experience with their client where they were just turned away.”

With the order being so new, immigration lawyers say it will take some time to get a handle on what’s really going on and which ports — from Texas to California — are allowing MPPs on to bridges to receive the necessary documents.

Border Report has asked CBP to more fully explain the procedure and whether ports are being closed to migrants and why. This story will be updated if the agency responds.

Goodwin said the tear sheets they get might just be placeholders to appease Mexican authorities because no one knows how long the current pandemic will last.

“I don’t know if they’re going to give them some fake hearing date and at some point and time in the future will probably be replaced by real hearing dates. Who knows how this will work out in practice,” Goodwin said. “I think we’ll see a rash of in abstentions because people will not know what to do.”

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