Wall Street Journal Article Proves My Point on 'Tent Courts'

Not much exciting to see here — except the photographs

By Andrew R. Arthur on January 13, 2020

The Wall Street Journal reported last week from one of the so-called "tent courts", temporary courtrooms set up near ports of entry along the Southwest border for aliens who are subject to the Migration Protection Protocols (also known as "Remain in Mexico"). The court and hearings as described therein were more or less as I suggested they would be in my January 1, 2020, post "DHS to Open 'Tent Courts' to Public: Likely less exciting than you would be led to believe". I could not have picked a better subhead.

Reporting from the tent court in Laredo (the other is in Brownsville), the reporter opened with:

In one of the first such hearings to be open to the public, four migrants showed up for immigration court in a giant tent near the border this week to face a judge on a video screen and a government lawyer they couldn't see.

That was about as exciting as it got, so she more or less repeated the same facts four paragraphs later, with just bit more detail:

In a session Tuesday morning, Judge Meredith Tyrakoski and a government attorney were some 160 miles north in a San Antonio courtroom, where a video camera was focused solely on the judge and an interpreter sitting next to her, who translated the judge's and lawyer's comments into Spanish for the migrants.

One of the respondent's was Cuban, and apparently had a lawyer, because the reporter explained that he filed an asylum application and the lawyer answered Immigration Judge (IJ) Tyrakoski's questions. That is generally how it goes in immigration court when the alien is represented — direct questioning of the respondent generally waits for later merits hearings, except for when the IJ asks whether the respondent wants to be represented by the lawyer who has filed an appearance.

The other three were a family (mother, father, and two-year-old son) from an unidentified country, who requested a continuance for counsel. Again, the same scene is played out hundreds of times a day in immigration courts across the country.

As for the government attorney not being visible, that is not uncommon when the immigration court is using video teleconferencing (VTC). In my courtroom (where I regularly used VTC), the camera view was generally wide enough to capture me, respondent's counsel, and the interpreter, but that was about it. I could move the camera to show the respondent the government attorney, but I rarely did that unless there was a reason to do so. The respondent could hear the attorney (and hear the interpreter, if one were required), and see me, which is likely more than due process requires.

Apparently hoping to add excitement to this purely ministerial affair, the Journal reporter stated that the hearing room (hearing room "D", to be exact), "had dozens of chairs and a sign declaring capacity for 105 people at a time," but aside from "a Journal reporter" (logically the one who wrote the article, but even that is unclear), court officials, and the four respondents, there was no one else there.

She continued:

The Journal couldn't determine whether other people were supposed to show up for hearings Tuesday but didn't. Advocates say that is common in the MPP program, because migrants don't always receive information in a timely manner or aren't able to travel to a border crossing in time.

A public listing of the day's cases wasn't posted, which is typical in traditional immigration courts.

I have not seen a tent court yet, but I am going to guess that these four respondents were the only ones on the docket that day, for a fairly basic reason: Had other respondents been expected, the IJ would have called their cases. And, if they were not present, the IJ would normally have asked the government trial attorney for proof they had been served with hearing notices and evidence of their removability, so as to order them removed in absentia. That also happens, hundreds of times a day, in immigration courts all around the country.

I will note that the reporter's statement that there was no public listing of the day's cases posted, "which is typical in traditional immigration courts", is vague. Is it typical that such a listing be posted, or typical that it would not be? In my experience, it is typical that it would be posted, but that is done for the convenience of the parties, counsel for the parties, and supporters of and witnesses for the respondent. In this instance, there were no witnesses, the respondents were likely led to the courtroom, and the only lawyer was, apparently, in the IJ's court, "160 miles north in San Antonio". I say apparently, because the lawyer did not appear on the reporter's roster of those who were in the tent court that day.

Now that those courtrooms are open to the public, the immigration courts will likely post a hearing listing soon.

Interestingly, although the article (correctly) states that "[i]mmigration advocates ... have previously complained about lack of access to the temporary courts," none of those advocates bothered to show up when the courts were opened. Or, at least they were not at hearing room D in Laredo on Tuesday.

More interesting than the reporting are the photographs that accompanied the article. I previously stated:

Like everyone else (other than the government, lawyers, and the respondents themselves), I have not been able to check out the set-up at these temporary courts (yet), but they are likely a bit sturdier than the canopy that was erected to ensure that your niece's outdoor nuptials were not ruined by a passing shower. The U.S. government has been providing temporary shelters for emergency responders at home and our troops abroad for almost two decades, and they have gotten pretty good at it in my experience.

My guess was more or less confirmed by the photographs. One shows the exterior of the court complex, which reveals ventilation ducts running into sturdy soft-sided shelters, with some hard-sided structures that look like trailers in the middle and at the end. The hearings are held in the soft-sided structures, but the interior of the courtroom appears to be a fairly sturdy structure, with overhead lighting, a tile floor, a computer and printer, desks and chairs, and the television monitor where the IJ and translator appear.

Whether more reporters (or "immigration advocates") will appear at future hearings at the tent courts remains to be seen. But, respectfully, what those observers will see is something that they can see every day of the work week at any of the nation's 63 permanent immigration courts. Which is generally not very exciting.