SAN ANTONIO - Tent courtrooms opened Monday in two Texas border cities to help process thousands of migrants who are being forced by the Trump administration to wait in Mexico while their requests for asylum wind through clogged immigration courts.
The court in Laredo opened with a judge who appeared by videoconference. Critics have denounced the proceedings because they are closed to the public and difficult for attorneys to access to provide legal representation.
One by one, the migrants stood up inside the tent and said they were afraid to be sent back to Mexico. The group included a woman from Honduras cradling her 4-year-old daughter, a Salvadoran man who said he was fleeing death threats and another man who said he was in hiding while he awaited a chance to enter the U.S.
The immigrants are part of a Trump administration policy officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols, but often known as the "Remain in Mexico" program. They spoke by video with the judge in San Antonio, where observers who wanted to watch the hearings had to go.
Judge Yvonne Gonzalez had 52 cases on her docket. On the other side of the screen, 26 people were in court in Laredo. Gonzalez could see them on a TV in her courtroom. After about 20 minutes, Gonzalez was close to ending the hearing when one man raised his hand and asked to speak. She told him to go ahead.
"I'm not under any condition to demand anything," he said through a translator. "But I would like to ask you. My family is accompanying me, and we're fearful of being in Mexico."
Gonzalez said she would address him afterward. Then a second person asked to speak and also said he was afraid. Eventually, eight people spoke.
One woman said she had to pay someone to bring her back for her hearing. Another person said she had been kidnapped and mugged.
The Associated Press is not identifying the migrants who spoke out of concern for their safety.
Gonzalez looked to the attorneys from the U.S. government present in the courtroom and asked about Mexico's role. "Are they helping with a place to stay?"
One of the attorneys, Kevin Terrill, replied that he did not know.
The judge conferred with U.S. government attorneys, then resumed court. She had each person who feared going back to Mexico approach the front of the room so they would be close on her television screen, then told them a security guard would take them to another room in the tent so they could be screened by a different agency to determine whether they would have to go back.
Hours earlier, around 200 migrants were told to report to the bridge crossing in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, at 4:30 a.m. so they could be taken across the bridge and directly into the tent court on the other side.
A second tent court is in Brownsville. Journalists are barred from the tents, even though immigration court hearings are generally open to the public. Unlike in criminal proceedings, public defenders are not provided in immigration cases. Few migrants can afford a lawyer.
The Remain in Mexico program has become one of the U.S. government's biggest tools to prevent migrants from crossing the southern border. Mexico has been cooperating with the program under pressure from President Donald Trump.
At least 42,000 migrants have been forced back into Mexico this year after crossing the border. Many of them say they fled violence or threats in their home countries with hopes of getting asylum.
A key development was the program's expansion in July to the eastern edge of the U.S.-Mexico border. On one side is South Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for unauthorized border crossings. On the other is Mexico's Tamaulipas state, known for its rampant violence and gangs that kidnap and attack migrants.
Immigrants and advocates trying to help in Mexican border cities have reported families sleeping in overcrowded shelters, boarding houses or outdoor camps. Many have been bused south by Mexico to cities considered safer, though there was no guarantee that they would be able to return.
The U.S. government has warned Americans not to travel to Tamaulipas, citing safety concerns. Meanwhile, the U.S. Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley chief recently testified that the agency was sending more than 1,000 migrants a week to Tamaulipas under the "Remain in Mexico" program.
The Department of Homeland Security said it planned to spend $155 million to build and operate the tent courts but expects the costs to be less than that.
Four people who appeared before Gonzalez had attorneys and brief hearings in which she told them they would be due back in court in one month.
She then called the remaining 22 people to stand at the front of the room and explained to them the immigration court process. She set their next hearings for Oct. 16 and told them it was important that they attend or face a removal order in absentia, which would prevent them from re-entering the U.S. for 10 years.
That's when the migrants described their fears of returning to Mexico.
Once everyone had been escorted out, all that was left was to issue absentia orders to the more than 20 people who had missed their hearing. Gonzalez told the security guards in Laredo that they could turn off the video.
"You all are very efficient," she said. "Thank you very much."
Associated Press writers Cedar Attanasio in El Paso, Texas, and Juan Antonio Calderon in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, contributed to this report.