BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — Immigration court proceedings for asylum-seekers resumed, as usual, Monday in a judicial tent city at the base of the Gateway International Bridge, three days after a federal circuit court in California blocked then suddenly reinstated the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy, allowing migrants to be returned to Mexico.
There had been initial speculation that court cases for thousands of asylum-seekers who are forced to remain in Mexico would be suspended, or perhaps canceled, after a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Friday afternoon temporarily halted the policy, which is formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols program.
Upon hearing the initial court ruling, thousands of migrants living in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, thought they would be allowed to enter the United States to wait during the duration of their asylum proceedings. As news spread Friday, hundreds amassed at the Gateway International Bridge, and other international bridges on the Southwest border, such as in Juarez, Mexico, hoping to be let into the United States.
Many described a chaotic situation that evolved at the Gateway Bridge, as migrants began crowding on the Mexican side of the bridge and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials — stationed at the mid-point — began beefing up their forces and put on extra riot gear in case of a confrontation, several advocates told Border Report.
“A lot of hope” and excitement quickly turned to “confusion” and then “hopes dashed,” as the court later that afternoon allowed the program to go back into effect, said Corie Schwabenland, of the University of San Francisco, who was at the tent encampment on Friday where 3,000 asylum-seekers live.
“They were excited, panicked, and scared,” said Schwabenland, 26, who has been volunteering with a group from the university for the past week, offering Spanish-to-English document translation services to the migrants. “There was a lot of frustration.”
“The camp was vibrating with energy,” she said, adding that many of the migrants were concerned they might be deported from Mexico. “They all wanted to know what does it mean?”
Lee Goodman, a retired lawyer from Chicago said some migrants in the camp “even started to pack up and get ready to leave.” There was frenzied energy, he added, as thousands of asylum-seekers who have lived on the river embankment for months were filled with anticipation of coming to the United States. He said they watched as CBP officers increased their numbers and dawned shields and riot-type gear as more and more migrants gathered on the Mexican side of the bridge.
“But the guards at the bridge did not have orders that would implement that decision and therefore they did not let anyone cross who wouldn’t have normally crossed, so nothing changed. And towards the end of the day, the court issued a temporary stay or put a hold on its order,” he said.
The Associated Press reported that the court allowed the program to go back into effect after the Justice Department argued that its suspension will prompt migrants to overrun the border and endanger national security.
Goldman said the stay “is not that unusual” as the court set a deadline of this evening for the federal government to file written arguments as to why the program should continue. Plaintiffs have until tomorrow evening to respond.
Goodman is among a group of protesters called Witness at the Border who since mid-January has held a daily vigil at a park across from the bridge to oppose MPP. He called Friday’s ruling encouraging, saying, “This decision was a very clear rebuke rejection of the Trump administration’s policy regarding ‘Remain in Mexico’ so we would hope that it would be dealt with seriously in that same effect and not simply be looked at on a matter of technicalities or procedures.”
This decision was a very clear rebuke rejection of the Trump administration’s policy regarding remain in Mexico so we would hope that it would be dealt with seriously.”LEE GOODMAN, RETIRED LAWYER AND WITNESS AT THE BORDER PROTESTER IN BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS
“Theoretically the injunction against the policy makes the policy dissolved. However, the reality of it is there are people guarding the border and they’re not going to change their procedures until someone tells them to,” he said.
But whether one circuit appeals court can force its judgment upon another circuit is up for debate among legal scholars. And, ultimately, will most likely have to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, which would hear the case upon appeal.
In the meantime, hundreds of asylum-seekers who were summoned to appear in the judicial tent city on Monday reported for their court cases before over a dozen immigration judges who were seen via video conferencing from other cities, such as San Antonio and Harlingen.
Court staffers said there was “a full docket” scheduled for the many temporary courtrooms set up in this sprawling tent city complex that is lined with AstroTurf in the walkways and a porta-potty every few feet.
In Courtroom D, lawyer William Brooks of Houston sat nervously with his Guatemalan client, Lilia Chavez Moralez and her two young children, Juana and Brandon Chavez. This was Brooks’ first time at the facility and he was unsure of the video conference procedures, with a judge in a Harlingen courtroom about 30 miles away.
His client, who speaks indigenous languages and some Spanish, has been living at the tent encampment with her children since Dec. 22, Brooks said. He was unable to meet with her prior to Monday’s initial hearing because to do so would require him to cross into Matamoros, an area the State Department is currently warning Americans not to travel.
“This address doesn’t even exist,” Brooks complained about the facility’s location on GPS, as he waited in a holding tent prior to the 8:30 a.m. court hearing.
Past him, dozens of immigrants were escorted by private security guards to various courtrooms, many of them tripping as they walked in shoes without shoelaces, which are confiscated by CBP officials who consider it a safety risk to the migrants.
Once inside the courtroom, Brooks’ client and her children were seen first by the immigration judge. Brooks handed the judge three sets of documents consisting of more than 250 pages each. The judge did not review the merits of the case but scheduled them all to return on April 13.
Once they left, the judge then called the remaining 20 migrants up in small groups, or family units, scheduling them all to return on March 26 for a second hearing. They would then all have to return again at a later time for their merit hearing to determine if their claims warrant them to be granted asylum in the United States. Most were from Cuba and Venezuela.
The chance is very slim that they will be granted asylum, however, as fewer than 0.1% of those who applied for asylum from the MPP program were granted asylum, according to a September report by The San Diego Union-Tribune. Of 47,000 cases, only 11 cases were granted asylum, the newspaper found.
Since it was implemented last year, over 60,000 migrants have been placed in the MPP program, which Department of Homeland Security Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli last week called an instrumental part of “the president’s overall strategy to drive down illegal immigration.”
After touring South Texas on Tuesday, Cuccinelli characterized the MPP program as “providing robust and timely due process for almost 60,000 migrants.”
“That program has been critical for reducing the strain on our immigration by helping to end catch-and-release,” he said, and for determining “legitimate asylum claims.”
On Sunday, a federal judge ruled that Cuccinelli was unlawfully appointed to lead the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency last year and, as a result, lacked authority to give asylum seekers less time to prepare for initial screening interviews. Cuccinelli today told Fox News that the Trump Administration was appealing that ruling.
Visit BorderReport.com for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.