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.”
Human rights experts testified that immigrants pushed out under MPP include rape victims, cancer survivors, pregnant women and children with autism.
Representative Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said the Trump immigration policy has created a “new ecosystem of criminal activity” across the border.
“We’ve had lawyers tell us about clients that have been raped multiple times,” Escobar said. “We’ve had lawyers tell us about client who have disappeared altogether — people who are in the legal asylum process. These are people who have been denied due process and indeed have been put in danger.”
At the foot of the gateway bridge across from Brownsville tent court, more than 2,000 immigrants await a court date.
Erin Thorn Vela, a lawyer with the Racial and Economic Justice Program, said the camp has grown four-fold since August when the Department of Homeland Security announced it would build the makeshift courts in Brownsville and Laredo, Texas.
“The horrors … are almost endless,” with limited food and water, Vela said.
“Until recently immigrants had to get into the Rio Grande to wash their clothes and wash their children,” she added.
Republicans pushed back on the witness accounts of conditions.
“I understand that you described the encampment on the northern border as being overcrowded and maybe not as healthy as you would like them to be,” said Representative Mike Rodgers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee. “I find it impossible to believe that the entire country of Mexico is dangerous to migrants.”
In response to the congressman’s comment, Knowles said at the conclusion of the hearing: “They can deny that all they want — Mexico is not safe.”
Republicans defended MPP as critical to block the flow of immigrants across the U.S. border.
Representative Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican, said more 977,000 immigrants attempted to illegally enter the U.S. in 2019 — more crossings than in the past two years combined.
Republicans repeatedly echoed the claim that nearly 90% of immigrants fail to appear for immigration hearings.
Chairwoman Rice noted meanwhile that the statistic was first introduced, and later walked back, by Kevin McAleenan, the former acting Homeland Security director who stepped down in September. McAleenan amended his congressional testimony because the statistic referred to a pilot program.
“In order for us to have a real conversation on this, we have to get real numbers,” Rice said.
Thomas Homan, former Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting director, admitted “that number fluctuates so much,” dropping to 40% in some cities.
Border officials with limited time and resources under MPP must screen recent arrivals to determine whether they should be forced back into Mexico.
After the hearing, Knowles told Courthouse News in an interview that the new procedure leaves immigration officials frustrated with carrying out lengthy probes that prior to MPP were brief initial screening.
The result, the union leader said, is a far more adversarial interview — with the immigrant in handcuffs.
Knowles also pushed back, however, against calls to shut down ICE, emphasizing Congress needs to appropriate resources to Homeland Security and monitor where funds land.
Following the hearing, Congressman Higgins said he also took issue with vilifying immigration agents.
A strong defender of the president, Higgins said legislators held “an optimistic point of view” that a bipartisan legislative fix was forthcoming “before impeachment sucked all the atmosphere out of the building here.”
The AFGE Local 1924 has filed numerous amicus briefs in lawsuits challenging Trump immigration policies, including MPP, in federal courts across the country.
In the Ninth Circuit, the union representing U.S. asylum officers called the program “entirely unnecessary,” saying it counters the nation’s “longstanding tradition of providing safe haven to people fleeing persecution.”
But Knowles said union members are looking to Congress to reverse the president’s policy. “It’s got to stop,” he said. “It can’t just wait until the courts decide. … People are being harmed.”
A facet of MPP still in the works: holding immigration hearings in Guatemala.
Trainings for U.S. immigration officials are ramping up this week, but Knowles said that union management looking to top officials at Homeland Security for updates on the procedure were left in the dark.
The union leader shared that efforts by the Trump administration to take the “handcuffs” off border agents doesn’t resonate across the board.
“Our asylum officers are saying, ‘Well don’t put the handcuffs on us,’” Knowles said.