McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Department of Homeland Security, citing concerns over the spread of COVID-19, has again pushed back until the end of June the startup date to resume immigration hearings for asylum-seekers who are in the Migrant Protection Protocols program.
Migrants who have been placed in the MPP program — which requires them to remain in Mexico during the duration of their U.S. immigration court proceedings — must now wait until June 22 for hearings to resume, DHS announced late Sunday in a joint statement with the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts. Those with hearings scheduled during this recess are to show up a month later from their scheduled court dates, the agencies said.
Without interruptions, the court process for MPPs can take upwards of nine months or longer. But with the recent shuttering of courts during this ongoing pandemic, migrant advocates now say they are uncertain how long asylum seekers will have to wait to complete their court process.
Jodi Goodwin, an immigration lawyer from Harlingen, Texas, said she understands the need to postpone the hearings because the judicial court facilities — such as one set up at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas — do not have adequate space for proper social distancing to thwart the spread of the deadly virus.
“I feel for my clients,” Goodwin told Border Report on Monday. “But I also need to stay healthy, and so do they. The tent courts are not set up to meet CDC guidelines.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges the frequent washing of hands, staying at least 6 feet apart, and avoiding crowded places or mass gatherings to prevent catching the deadly coronavirus.
“I understand the need for it to protect everybody but these poor folks are stuck. Who knows what’s going to happen now?” said Charlene D’Cruz, a lawyer with the nonprofit Lawyers for Good Government, which offers free legal aid to MPP asylum-seekers in Matamoros, Mexico.
Although the U.S.-Mexico border has been closed to non-essential travel since March 20, asylum-seekers still had been required to go to their respective immigration court — including judicial tent courts in Brownsville, across from Matamaros, and in Laredo, Texas, across from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico — to pick up their court extension papers (the immigration court in El Paso is located inside a Downtown federal building not far from the border). And this added to increased foot traffic on the bridges and violated social distancing measures that officials have been striving, migrant advocates had complained.
Starting Monday, those with hearings scheduled in the next couple of weeks will not have to go to the ports to retrieve extension papers, according to the DHS/EOIR statement, which said all in-person document services have been suspended until June 8.
But the statement is vague and unclear about what will happen to migrants with hearings scheduled between June 9-21. Those with hearings after June 22 are to appear on their regular date, according to the statement.
The statement issued Sunday night by DHS and EOIR reads:
Beginning May 10th, in-person document service will be suspended immediately until June 8th, alleviating the need for aliens to travel within Mexico to a U.S. port of entry during this one-month suspension period. DHS and EOIR are deeply committed to ensuring the health and safety of aliens, our frontline officers, immigration court professionals, and our citizens.
All MPP hearings will remain postponed through, and including, June 19th. Individuals with a hearing date prior to June 22nd should present themselves at the port of entry identified on their tear sheet one month later than the date indicated on their most recently noticed date. For example, if the hearing date is May 10th, individuals should present themselves on June 10th.
For individuals with a hearing date of June 22nd or after, there is no change in procedures and individuals should report as instructed on their tear sheets.
D’Cruz said she, too, had trouble deciphering the new rules but she said lowering foot traffic on the international bridges is much needed. “Now they’re saying if your hearing notice say is June 3 that you go on bridge July 3, so hopefully that will cut off some of those trips that they’re being forced to take on the bridge, which was really ludicrous.”
Recently foot traffic has dramatically increased on international bridges leading into South Texas, with reports of people waiting two to five hours to cross late last week.
Border Report has reached out to officials with EOIR for clarification on whether migrants with hearings in mid-June will have to go retrieve in-person documents once that service supposedly reopens on June 9. This story will be updated if information is received.