WASHINGTON (CN) — As Democrats dug deeper into the case for President Donald Trump’s impeachment Tuesday, another House committee sunk its teeth this morning into the makeshift immigration courts cropping up in tents along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Representative Kathleen Rice, a New York Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee on border security, said hundreds of these “secretive, assembly-line” hearings occur each day. At the hearings, judges and government counsel video-call in, and lawmakers are kept on the sideline.
Though officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocol, MPP has become known as the Remain in Mexico Program. The program took effect on Jan. 18, 2019, and since then has forced tens of thousands of immigrants to wait in Mexico while the United States processes their asylum claims.
Laura Peña, pro-bono counsel for the American Bar Association Commission on Immigration, told lawmakers today that only 2% of immigrants under MPP have access to a lawyer, and Spanish-speaking immigrants are especially at risk.
“Asylum seekers who are appearing in these tent courts do not have access to simulations interpretations,” Peña said. “So they quite often have no idea what is going on in these proceedings.”
Describing the ABA’s visit to one such tent court in Brownsville, Texas, Peña said her colleagues witnessed an “erosion of legal protection.”
To date the ABA is the only organization to access the facility, she added.
Another witness to condemn the MPP was Michael Knowles, an asylum officer who emphasized that he spoke not on behalf of the department but in his capacity as president of the union AFGE Local 1924.
“Our objections are based in our oath and in our commitment to uphold the law,” Knowles said. “These policies are blatantly illegal, they are immoral and indeed are the basis for some egregious human rights violations by our own country.”
Peña told lawmakers that attorneys cannot enter Brownsville to meet with clients. They are allowed a one-hour consultation the day of an immigration hearing, and no opportunity to meet again once the proceedings conclude.
Peña said the conditions force U.S. immigration lawyers to meet with clients in Mexico, but that most are not willing to take the risk.
“Each time I need to meet with my client I must take precautions to ensure my personal safety while in Mexico,” Peña said. “I cross only during the day.”
Once Peña met with a client along the narrow sidewalk of the port of entry during a heavy thunderstorm.
“My client’s 4-year-old son was crying because he was scared of the thunderstorm,” she said. “This is not meaningful access to counsel, and attorneys should not have to endure such dangerous conditions to fulfill their professional responsibilities.”