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Harris, Warren, Merkley Raise Concerns That DHS-Operated “Tent Courts” Violate Asylum Seekers’ Due Process Rights

March 03, 2020

Lawmakers renew call for termination of Remain in Mexico policy, which has stranded 59,000 asylum seekers in dangerous conditions in Mexico as they wait for immigration court hearings 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) on Monday sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raising concerns about the lack of access to appropriate legal services and lack of transparency at DHS-operated “tent courts” at the U.S.-Mexico border. The lawmakers questioned whether these conditions violate asylum seekers’ due process rights and hinder critical oversight of those courts. They also renewed their calls to the Trump Administration to end its inhumane Remain in Mexico policy, which has forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait in extremely dangerous conditions while their asylum claims are processed.

“We are concerned that DHS and DOJ’s current operation of the tent courts violates the due process rights of those seeking refuge at our borders and prevents meaningful oversight of the asylum adjudication process,” wrote the lawmakers. “As a result, we request that you provide additional information regarding the operation of these courts and the steps DHS and DOJ are taking, if any, to protect the rights of migrants seeking asylum.”

The lawmakers’ letter raises several concerns first raised by immigration lawyers, activists, journalists, and asylum seekers themselves:

–          Asylum seekers in tent courts have inadequate access to information about their legal options. For instance, tent courts do not provide a Legal Orientation Program, a resource provided in most immigration courts that educates asylum seekers about the asylum process and their available legal options.

–          Asylum seekers have poor access to counsel. Tent courts impose severe challenges to obtaining an attorney. Asylum seekers that do have counsel are often unable to meet with their attorneys outside of the tent courts and are often given as little as 15 minutes to meet with their attorneys inside the tent courts. Once inside the courtroom, DHS further handicaps migrants’ attorneys by denying them access to technology in the courtroom, while DHS attorneys are granted full access.

–          The tent courts function as “virtual immigration courtrooms,” where judges remotely conduct hearings by video teleconference, denying migrants meaningful interaction with their judge.

–          Members of the public and the press have been granted only restricted access to observe proceedings in tent courts.

Senators Harris, Warren, and Merkley have requested responses to their questions about the operations at the tent courts by March 13, 2020.

The full letter is available here.

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