Desperate asylum-seekers leave South Texas hearings with little victories to none

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Experience an asylum hearing at the judicial tent city in Brownsville, Texas

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — A visibly pregnant Honduran woman pleaded with an U.S. immigration judge to be paroled in the United States with her two young daughters.

Later, a Cuban woman told the same judge she and her husband were “living in hiding” in a home in Matamoros, Mexico, fearful to venture out in the dangerous city. She also begged to be paroled in America.

In both asylum cases, the judge told the women their stories don’t matter — at least for now.

Several migrants, who under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program are forced to remain in Mexico during their asylum proceedings, exhibited the same desperation as they appeared in a judicial tent court last week in Brownsville.

The tent court opened several months ago at the base of the Gateway International Bridge but had been off-limits to the public and the media until recently.

Last week, 24 migrants were on the 8:30 a.m. docket in Courtroom E. Tired and dirty, they waited for U.S. Immigration Judge Frank Pimentel.

Most live in a filthy refugee tent encampment that now holds 2,500 people just over the bridge in Matamoros. It’s the largest refugee encampment on the U.S.-Mexico border, and it’s where most migrants — penniless and without options — find themselves after their long journey north.

MPP was implemented in South Texas on July 17, and that week the migrant camp went from about 200 people to 600 people. Before that, most migrants were paroled in the United States during their asylum hearings with the promise that they would appear for all court proceedings or face immediate deportation.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers require all asylum-seekers to be on the bridge by 4 a.m. for a medical check, lice screening and to ensure their papers are in order. Before being ushered across, their shoelaces are taken. No cellphones or electronic recording devices are allowed and all courtrooms have strict “no-talking” orders. If they have questions or need to use the portable toilet, they must raise their hands.

Migrants assemble on the Gateway International Bridge at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, to be screened for lice, illness and to ensure their court papers are in order. (Courtesy Photo)

A few children slept on the black folding chairs, while several adults slept upright in their seats as they waited for Pimentel to take the bench. Like the hundreds of other migrants who have their hearings in this facility every day, their interactions with the judge would be via videoconferencing.

The judicial tent city is run by the Executive Office for Immigration Review. After a public outcry from elected officials, immigration lawyers and the media, the court’s master hearings were opened up to media outlets.

The master hearings are for large groups of migrants. During the hearing, they are informed of their asylum rights and their right to hire an attorney — at their cost — and then given documents to fill out and return with at a later date.

Personal credible-fear interviews, in which migrants explain their fear of persecution or torture for returning to their countries, are still are off-limits to the public.

The lack of access to credible-fear interviews angers migrant advocates like Mike Seifert, who is an American Civil Liberties Union of Texas border advocacy strategist based in Brownsville.

“You are allowed to get into the master’s hearing, so it’s essentially rescheduling a court date. We think all of the public should have access to the merits cases — that’s when the stories come out. Quite clearly, if there are issues of privacy, we respect that, but that’s a call for the judge’s to make on an individual basis, not just ‘No one can come to these, ever,'” Seifert said.

Mike Seifer, a border advocacy strategist for the ACLU of Texas, talks Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in front of the judicial tent city in Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Seifert said he tried to attend a hearing recently but was denied. He was sent back and forth from CBP to private security officials and eventually was completely turned away.

Even for those where the public is allowed to attend, getting into a hearing is not easy. Court-watchers must arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the scheduled docket and must present a government-issued ID. That ID is traded for a visitor’s badge and a security officer walks visitors through the astroturf corridors under the tent roof to the various portable courtrooms in this vast tent city that is located behind barbed wire.

A confusing hearing for the migrants

None of the migrants in Courtroom E on Wednesday had lawyers present, and it was obvious from the questions they asked that they are confused about the American asylum process.

In groups of four to eight, Pimentel called them to a table in the front of this tan portable courtroom, which had four windows, fake plastic wooden floors and porta-potties outside. On a wall in front of the table is a giant television screen where Pimentel and the court’s Spanish translator appeared.

The migrants are referred to as “respondents” and by their 9-digit AA or alien registration number.

They were grouped by the dates and locations where they entered the United States. All 24 on Pimentel’s docket had entered between Oct. 14 and 16 of last year near the South Texas towns of Roma and Hidalgo.

The majority were Cuban, including two brothers. There was also a family from Venezuela, the pregnant Honduran woman with her daughters and some men from El Salvador.

When asked if they had questions, most tried to plead their cases for why they needed to be paroled in the United States. That included economic reasons; they have family here; they are scared for their safety in Mexico, and so on.

But in case after case, Pimentel told them they were getting ahead of themselves and that they would have a chance to state their cases at a later court hearing, much later they all found out.

The Cuban blond woman who was well-dressed, but lacked shoelaces because they were confiscated by CBP, said she and her husband were political opposition leaders in their island nation and they cannot return because they were persecuted there.

“We are living, hiding in a home in Matamoros, afraid for our lives,” she said in Spanish. She said that neither received a proper Visa from Mexican authorities when they arrived and thus they are not allowed to work and they “are scared to leave the house because immigration is after us,” she said.

The judge retorted that he “had never heard of such a thing,” and set a follow-up hearing for March 2. After she continued to plead, saying they could not afford to live like this any longer, the judge offered to send the couple to meet with a Department of Homeland Security official for an immediate interview regarding their fears. They were then escorted out by a court officer.

A few minutes later, the Honduran woman pointed to her big belly, to which the judge asked her why she was telling him this.

“I can tell you that your being pregnant doesn’t have any effect on your case. I don’t know if there’s anything you think I would do with that,” Pimentel said.

The woman just shook her head and said no more.

However, under the Department of Homeland Security’s MPP rules, migrants who are sick or have a physical condition, such as late pregnancy, are supposed to be exempt from this policy.

The woman in court appeared to be in late-term pregnancy, but with no lawyer present, she merely took the court papers ordering her and her daughters to return on May 20 — more than seven months after they were apprehended Oct. 14, 2019 in Roma, Texas.

And then they were escorted out.

The two Cuban brothers, wearing matching black coats full of dirt, had arrived at the Hidalgo Port of Entry on Oct. 16. Their court dates were reset for May 20.

“Can we get an earlier date?” one migrant asked the judge.

“I wish there were but, no. We are overwhelmed with people making asylum claims like you. So that’s the earliest I have. See you all on May 20,” Pimentel told them.

Another migrant asked what constitutes “persecution” and “torture?”

The judge explained: “You need to establish that you have a well-founded fear of future persecution if returned to your home country. It is also possible from where you came that you might be barred from seeking asylum in the United States if you didn’t seek asylum in another country first.”

This third-country asylum rule, which the Trump administration began last year, requires migrants to claim asylum in the first country they come to after leaving their home country.

“Generally speaking, references to persecution or torture is something done by your government. Sometimes it arises when your government is aware someone else is doing something to you and they say, ‘We don’t care about that.’ It is your obligation to prove that this is occurring to you. Generally speaking, that’s what persecution and torture refers to,” Pimentel told them. “So if that is your situation, then, by all means, you should seek protection in the United States, but if you are just looking for a better life or you are trying to escape crime in your country, that is not a basis for granting asylum.”

By 10 a.m., the court officer passed out coloring sheets and a few crayons to the children, who smiled gratefully. A bathroom break was called at 10:25 a.m. And bottled waters were handed out to the migrants after they returned, escorted, from the porta-potties.

A few of the respondents were lucky enough to get early March hearings before immigration judges in Fort Worth. But Pimentel warned that if they take those earlier dates they could not add any more documentation or evidence to their case files.

Several nodded in agreement — one woman saying she could not live in the tent encampment in Matamoros for very much longer “because of the level of violence in Mexico it is too high,” she said.

The last three to be heard were a family from Venezuela and the mother broke down and cried saying her son “has special needs” and he was persecuted in their home country and now he is living here without any education at all.

“This is not the time for that,” Pimentel told her.

“I apologize for being emotional,” she said, balling a tissue in her fist.

Their hearing was set for March 9.

His third ‘final’ hearing

In another courtroom, a Cuban man who helps to teach at the migrants’ Sidewalk School for Asylum Seekers, waited for his third “final hearing,” said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, who runs the school. He was on the bridge at 4 a.m., and waited for several hours but his case was postponed “because the judge did not show up,” she told Border Report.

She and several opponents of MPP waited in a holding tent facility in the hopes of being allowed to watch his case. “We’re here to lend support,” she said.

Congressional delegation visit

On Friday, 17 congressional members came to the bridge and visited the refugee camp, as well as the judicial tent facility, which U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said “does not offer due process” and called it “morally unjust.”

Sister Norma Pimentel leads a congressional delegation Friday, Jan. 17, 2019, as they arrive to tour the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

All called for more transparency on the hearings, greater access by the public and media and called for an end to MPP.

Read a Border Report story on the congressional visit.

Outside the tent facility, opponents of the MPP policy this week continued to hold a daily vigil and protest, which they began on Sunday, Jan. 12. Joshua Rubin, of Bronx, New York, is leading the protests and said he will stay until the last MPP is paroled in the United States. Rubin organized a six-month vigil and protest against a detention facility in Homestead, Fla., where migrant children were being held. That facility was eventually closed. Before that, he helped lead protests that lasted three months against the federally-sponsored migrant-child detention facility in Tornillo, Texas. That facility also was shut down in January 2018.

Read a Border Report story on the tent city protesters.

“We’ll know the significance when they see the results,” Rubin said of the congressional visit. “Members of Congress can always come and visit and see things. If they choose to raise their voices and to make this loud so that the nation can hear over the noise of the impeachments, then I’ll say the significance is great. If they come here, they look, they say ‘it’s terrible’ and then they go onto other issues and forget about this. No significance at all. We’ll see what happens.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at

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