EDITORIAL: No access

Immigration ‘tent courts’ don’t provide due process

In this May 2019 file photo, U.S. Border Patrol agents and others walk through the Donna tent facility that will process and hold asylum seekers on Thursday, May 2, 2019, in Donna. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The Trump administration’s “tent courts,” which were set up ostensibly to handle the large volume of Central American migrants seeking asylum in this country, have opened, and at first glance it appears that those concerned with the policy had reason to worry.

Created as part of the government’s migrant protection protocols that include deporting migrants to Mexico to await their court hearings, the tents were erected along the border at Brownsville, Laredo, El Paso and Yuma, Ariz., so that the migrants could cross the border the day of their hearings and be sent back afterward.

It’s a live-remote system that initially offered the promise of more efficiency. The hearings essentially are videoconferences, with the migrants in the border tents talking to immigration judges who are at permanent immigration courts.

In practice, however, the separation doesn’t seem necessary, and it certainly isn’t an improvement.

Migrants in the Laredo tent deal with judges who are in courtrooms in San Antonio. There the judges have full access to any resources they might need to help them review the cases and render their decisions.

The Brownsville tent, however, seems unnecessary, as the judges hearing those cases are based in local immigration offices in Harlingen and Bayview. Instead of maintaining a tent facility, it seems more practical to load the petitioners onto buses at the bridge, and transport them the half-hour trip to the official court.

What the tents do offer is secrecy — which violates one of the primary precepts of our nation’s court system: transparency, to help ensure fairness and guard against surreptitious deals. Members of the public, including the news media, are allowed into the courtrooms with the judges and view the migrants on video screens, but no one is allowed into the actual tents. Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights and legal advocates have tried to enter the tents, and all have been turned away. Those advocates say the inability to enter the facilities denies them the ability to offer the assistance and legal representation they want to offer to the migrants.

This is important, as people who have viewed the proceedings from the courtrooms report that the migrants obviously are confused and don’t understand much of what’s happening.

A recent Syracuse University review of immigration court data found that of the thousands of people who appear before U.S. immigration courts, only 2 percent have legal representation or other assistance. Immigration judges have reported that in many cases, court-appointed translators have erred in their translations. This counters the ideal of due process of law, which our nation’s founder clearly saw as a basic human right, not a privilege of citizenship.

Are the tent courts, and the MPP as a whole, unworkable, or can they be improved as its implementation reveals problems? The answer to that question matters only if the administration is willing to evaluate and improve the system as needed. Otherwise it will only reinforce the concerns of critics who already say it’s only a cover for the administration’s ultimate goal of reducing immigration as much as possible.