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At The Texas Border, Tent Courtooms Set Up To Process Aslyum Cases

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

White tents are now serving as temporary immigration courtrooms in two Texas border towns. They're part of an effort to work through thousands of asylum claims. Here's Bonnie Petrie from Texas Public Radio.

BONNIE PETRIE, BYLINE: More than four dozen migrants make their way across the border from Mexico to court hearings in Laredo, Texas. Elizabeth Almanza is with American Gateways, a group that offers legal assistance to asylum seekers.

ELIZABETH ALMANZA: You have moms, dads, whole family units. Then the judge goes through, as a group, their rights.

PETRIE: The judge presiding over this ad hoc courtroom is more than 150 miles away in San Antonio. Judge Yvonne Gonzalez is one of nearly two dozen judges in Texas hearing these cases via teleconference. This is a new type of court, created to hear cases from asylum seekers forced to stay in Mexico while their cases are considered. More than 40,000 migrants are waiting in that country for their day in U.S. immigration court. Acting Citizenship and Immigration Services director Ken Cuccinelli told NPR this new process is being implemented across the border from California to Texas.

KEN CUCCINELLI: We are still in the relatively early stages and adding on Brownsville and Laredo, and we want this to work. We will make it work.

PETRIE: But critics say this new approach is making it more difficult for migrants. More than 20 people on Judge Gonzalez's docket didn't show up for court. Of those who did, only a handful had a lawyer, and more than half told the judge they're afraid for their lives in Mexico. There are reports from migrants of assaults and kidnappings and run-ins with drug cartels and human traffickers. Almanza says migrants forced to stay in Mexico also have few resources.

ALMANZA: So you have these individuals that don't have a home, and they're all in Laredo. Food - how do they eat? You need money.

PETRIE: The migrants in Gonzalez's court will have to figure all that out for at least another month, when they're next scheduled to appear in this courtroom.

For NPR News, I'm Bonnie Petrie in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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