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Tent courtrooms are set to open on the border. Can they solve America’s immigration crisis?

The Department of Homeland Security will open a tent court facility in downtown Laredo, Texas, and begin processing asylum-seekers on Monday.

A view of the tents behind La Posada Hotel, to be used as temporary courtrooms in asylum hearings, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, in Laredo, Texas. ( Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News )
A view of the tents behind La Posada Hotel, to be used as temporary courtrooms in asylum hearings, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, in Laredo, Texas.
Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Department of Homeland Security will open a tent court facility in downtown Laredo, Texas, and begin processing asylum-seekers on Monday in an effort to solve what many have called an immigration crisis. The football field-sized complex of white tents, referred to as “soft-sided buildings” by some U.S. officials, is the first of its kind to open along the border.

Located on a lot overlooking the Rio Grande, at least 20 plastic-walled courtrooms in the complex will host hearings for asylum-seekers who have been returned to Mexico under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program.

The tents are the most recent addition to a series of U.S. immigration changes designed to handle an influx of migrants from Central America. These changes include a plan — which was approved by the Supreme Court on Wednesday — to require asylum-seekers who travel through another country, such as Guatemala or Mexico, to seek refuge there before coming to the U.S.

The rule reversed a longstanding policy of allowing people to claim asylum in the United States, no matter how they arrived at the border. Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who is working to challenge the legality of the policy change, said it could have disastrous consequences.

“The lives of thousands of families are at stake,” he told The New York Times.

But Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco wrote in a in a Supreme Court brief that changes were needed to address “an unprecedented surge in the number of aliens who enter the country unlawfully across the souther border and, if apprehended, claim asylum and remain in the country while their claims are adjudicated.”

In May, the number of migrants apprehended by Border Patrol after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border peaked at more than 132,000. That’s nearly triple the number of apprehensions recorded in prior months. Since then, the numbers have gone back down.

Under the “Remain in Mexico” program, migrants who claim asylum in the United States are issued a court date and sent back to Mexico instead of being allowed to wait in the United States. Since the program started in California in January, more than 37,000 migrants have been returned to Mexico, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Starting before 4 a.m. on Monday, migrants will begin to make their way from Mexico to the United States over an international bridge that spans the Rio Grande to appear for their scheduled court dates at the tent facility in Laredo. There, judges from all over the country will appear via video conferencing. Between 200 and 300 people are scheduled to be seen each day, but it is unclear how many will actually show up, according to Laredo city officials. Another set of tents is being set up in Brownsville, Texas.

A view of the Rio Grande, Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico (left) and Laredo, Texas, (right) Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, from International Bridge No. 2.
A view of the Rio Grande, Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico (left) and Laredo, Texas, (right) Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, from International Bridge No. 2.
Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News

Those who are supportive of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, like Andrew Arthur, a resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., hope the tent courts will speed up the legal process for genuine asylum-seekers, while discouraging false asylum claims.

Immigration advocates, on the other hand, say the tents will cause more problems than they solve. Judges will be removed off their regular dockets of deportation proceedings and other immigration cases to videoconference in for the asylum hearings at the border. This could add to the backlog of pending immigration cases across the country, Melissa Cruz, communications and program associate at the American Immigration Council, wrote in an article for Immigration Impact.

Laredo-based lawyer Gustavo Quintanilla said it will be difficult for migrants staying in Mexico to access U.S. legal counsel. He also worries the tents will further entrench “Remain in Mexico,” which he says leaves legitimate asylum-seekers at risk in dangerous border towns.

“They are being sent to a country that is not their own,” said Quintanilla. “Across the border from where we are right now, the cartel activity has been quite fierce.”

Some migrants have been waiting in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, since July for their court dates. In that city, the kidnapping and extortion of migrants has become a daily occurrence, according to local sources.

Arthur said that under the “Remain in Mexico” policy, it is incumbent on the Mexican government to provide protection to migrants.

“If it turns out they are not being protected, then the United States needs to reevaluate that policy,” Arthur said.

Migrants in the Nuevo Laredo city government shelter, Wednesday, Aug. 21, in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The migrants were sent back to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols.
Migrants in the Nuevo Laredo city government shelter, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The migrants were sent back to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols.
Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News

Quintanilla said the tents, the Remain in Mexico policy and the changes to the asylum laws are all part of the Trump administration’s broader effort to make it more difficult for migrants to come to the United States.

“They are definitely designed to discourage people from coming into this country,” said Quintanilla. Immigration advocates say countries such as Guatemala and Mexico do no provide a safe alternative for asylum-seekers wanting to come to the United States.

“I don’t care how difficult the president or anyone else makes it,” said Quintanilla. “When people are so desperate that they feel they have to leave their country because they can no longer tolerate the conditions, they are going to come.”