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Tent Courts For Migrant Asylum-Seekers Described As Disorganized


This week, for the first time, asylum-seekers crossed the border into Texas and stepped into big white tents - tents that are now functioning as immigration courts. The Trump administration is trying to clear a huge backlog of cases, so it's set up temporary complexes in Brownsville and Laredo, Texas - makeshift courtrooms where judges preside via video conference. Lisa Koop of the National Immigrant Justice Center represents clients appearing in these courts, and she's with us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

LISA KOOP: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What do the courts look like? I described them as tents. What - just tell us what it's like to be in them.

KOOP: Yeah. I think describing them as tents is pretty accurate. It's a collection of temporary facilities, kind of shipping container-looking trailers where we're sometimes allowed to have attorney-client meetings and then, you know, big spaces where fans are pumped in, and there are chairs set up. And it's definitely something that appears to be pretty temporary and brought together quickly.

When you approach the court, it doesn't look anything like a court. It doesn't really look like anything at all. There's a steep set of wooden staircases that we climb to approach a locked gate. There's no signage. And that's where we go in. Our clients come in directly from the bridge. So I'm in Laredo, Texas. And our clients have to appear at the - on the Mexican side of the bridge at 4:30 in the morning. And from there, they're escorted across the bridge and into a holding area where they remain until we're very briefly able to see them before going into court.

MARTIN: So the question is, is this an improvement on what was happening before? And what was happening before were long waits - right? - weeks, months, many months.

KOOP: Right. No, it's not an improvement. You know, if the effort is to give people a meaningful shot at seeking asylum, that's not happening in these courts. You know, in Nuevo Laredo, we're not able to see our clients. It's not safe for them. It's not safe for us to travel over and see them. So we see our clients moments before they step into court and make decisions that are going to impact the rest of their lives. So our ability to counsel them is very limited.

And they're waiting in situations that are dire. It's not safe for them. They're afraid. Many of them don't have the resources to continue living in Mexico. Many of them aren't living in Nuevo Laredo. And so they're traveling in from Monterrey or places, you know, almost down to Mexico City in order to get to court.

And so there are so many obstacles that they face before they set foot in those courtrooms, where they're not seeing a judge live. They're seeing a judge who's beamed in from a courtroom - right now from San Antonio, but in theory, there will be judges appearing from all over the United States presiding over these cases.

MARTIN: So I hear you saying that it's a positive step to try to move people through this process quicker. It's just that there are all these other circumstances that still make it difficult for people to get a fair shot at asylum.

KOOP: Rachel, I don't think that there's any good intent behind this. I don't think there is any effort to say, let's make the program more efficient or let's give asylum applicants a quicker opportunity to present their cases. This is clearly an effort to foreclose asylum.

MARTIN: Lisa Koop of the National Immigrant Justice Center, we appreciate your time.

KOOP: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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