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First MPP immigration cases heard via videoconferencing in South Texas

HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) ⁠— Some of the first cases of migrants who were sent back to Mexico from South Texas via the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocol program (MPP) were heard via videoconferencing Monday morning.

Asylum-seekers argued their cases from a new judicial tent city at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, to a federal immigration judge about 30 miles away in Harlingen.

U.S. Immigration Judge Daniel Gilbert heard the asylum requests of six people from two different families. Only one defendant listed on Gilbert’s MPP master docket was missing. During the first day of hearings, which were held last Thursday, only two of six defendants showed up to the Gateway facility for their hearing.

Immigration advocates fear that that the migrants, many of whom are sleeping in a tent encampment on the streets of Matamoros, Mexico, have given up or don’t understand when or how to get to this new court facility.

Migrants are seen living in the streets of Matamoros, Mexico, on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in a makeshift tent encampment at the base of the Gateway International Bridge. They are seeking asylum and must wait in Mexico under a new Trump Administration policy. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez). Read a previous Border Report story on the Matamoros tent encampment.

Over the weekend, a group of eight volunteer immigration lawyers went to Matamoros and helped hundreds of migrants prepare for their hearings, which are expected to begin en masse starting this week.

There is great confusion about how the proceedings will be handled, and neither lawyers nor journalists were able to enter the Gateway facility last week. They are, however, allowed to sit in the courtrooms where the federal immigration judges are hearing the cases. (Read a story about the first day of hearings last week here.)

On Monday, Judge Gilbert made it clear to all defendants that they had the right to an attorney, but it is not provided free to them. None of the defendants were represented and all agreed to proceed without legal counsel.

Sitting at a table facing a camera at the Gateway facility, 30-year-old Eric Daniel Escobar Mejia and 22-year-old Erica de Jesus Zavaletta spoke with the judge through a court-appointed translator.

De Jesus held their squirming son Emerson ⁠— who she said will turn 1 on Thursday ⁠— while Escobar explained that they have been living on the streets of Matamoros since they were apprehended Aug. 9 in the City of Hidalgo. They fled their homeland of Guatemala and have no close relatives who are U.S. citizens, he said.

During the hearing, De Jesus several times attempted to breastfeed young Emerson to quiet his cries, but the boy — who wore only a diaper on his bottom — fussed and fidgeted and had to be passed from parent to parent.

The judge found the “order of removal sustained by clear and convincing evidence,” but he did not deport them after the couple said they had a fear of returning to Guatemala. Instead, Gilbert gave them an Oct. 16 court date to return to Gateway for court and instructed them to bring documents filled out explaining their fears. Along with this form, an I-589, he also encouraged them to include letters from family or friends, newspaper articles, hospital reports or police reports that corroborate their claims.

However, Gilbert added that the documents, which are in English, must be returned with answers written in English.

Escobar requested they be allowed to stay in the United States to find someone to help them fill out the forms properly, but Gilbert, who works for the U.S. Department of Justice, said he did not have the authority to grant them that request in this case, which is brought by the Department of Homeland Security.

“And if your documents are in Spanish you need to provide a translation into English and a certificate of translation indicating the person who translated the documents was able to do so,” Gilbert told them.

He also added that they must supply multiple copies of the reports.

Mom could have been deported

The second family to appear before Gilbert from Gateway was 29-year-old Cindy Lopez Gutierrez with her 8-year-old son Chris Reyes and 12-year-old daughter Monica Reyes.

They, too, had come from Guatemala and were apprehended on Aug. 13 crossing near Roma, Texas, in Starr County.

But when she was asked if she had a fear of returning to Guatemala, Lopez said “no.”

“I’m alone trying to provide an opportunity for a better life for my children,” Lopez told Gilbert via a court-appointed translator.

“I understand that, but unfortunately that in itself does not provide any basis for you to remain in the United States. If that is the reason you came to the United States the court will simply issue an order of removal,” the judge told her.

Gilbert could have ordered her deported on the spot to Guatemala, but said that because she said her children both feared returning to Guatemala, that all three could return on Oct. 16, with the I-589 forms filled out (in English) to continue their asylum claims.

As they left the Gateway facilities, to wait back in Matamoros for another month until their next hearing, Gilbert told Lopez: “OK. Good luck.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.

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