The judge reminded them that since they have no legal visa to stay in the country, they’re currently at a master calendar hearing, a preliminary hearing that begins the government’s efforts to remove them from the country. The respondents looked at each other: “We’re confused. We’re asylum-seekers.”
Evidently they didn’t understand that even as asylum-seekers, they have to undergo a removal proceeding, from which they can ask for relief as asylum-seekers. It’s all part of due process, but immigration law is so complicated that even immigration lawyers tell me they get confused.
The judge sighed at their confusion: “If you have trouble understanding this basic thing…. You need to find a lawyer. Immigration law is very, very complicated.”
The woman’s voice sounded strangled: “But we don’t have any resources to pay for an attorney.”
The judge threw up his hands: “Well, ma’am. I don’t know what to tell you. I tell you DHS has charged you with removability from the U.S., and you look confused. I can’t go forward in this case when you don’t even understand that basic thing.”
The woman protested, “But in no point in time did we try to enter illegally.” They had presented themselves at the port of entry, and then the government had sent them back to Mexicali, Mexico, under MPP.
The judge explained to them that even though they didn’t enter illegally, they can still be denied entry because they don’t have a legal visa. “These are things an attorney would be able to tell you,” he said, and declared he was giving them more time to find an attorney, even though everyone knew the likelihood of that happening was near zero.
The couple picked up their son and left the courtroom, still looking confused but now also looking dejected.
A woman stepped up with her teenage daughter. Then a man with his teenage son. Then a woman with her two toddler daughters. A man alone. Another woman alone. Over and over, the judge asked, “Why are you here without an attorney?”
Everyone gave the same answer: No attorney would represent them when they’re not based in the United States.
I also saw the judge berate respondents over and over again for not filing a home address.
One respondent answered, “I don’t have a specific place I’m living in.” Like many migrants stuck in Mexican border cities under MPP, he’s homeless. He and his son are hopping from place to place, sometimes landing a bed in a shelter, or sleeping on the streets.
The judge asked: “Why is it so difficult to get a post box somewhere?”
The man said that for a while he couldn’t find a stable job, so he couldn’t afford a post office box. Another woman, when the judge asked her the same question, said she’s unfamiliar with Tijuana and got lost looking for a post office. Another man said he moves from place to place, looking for a job so he can survive the many months he has to stay in Mexico.
The judge asked each of them, “Then why not find someone you trust and use their address?”
Again—that’s not possible for many migrants. They don’t know anyone they trust in Mexico.
“Well, I told you numerous times what you have to do,” the judge said. “It’s up to you. I can’t force you to do it. You’re putting yourself in jeopardy.”
Not submitting an address is a serious due process issue: Without an accurate address, the government will mail any notices that the respondents need—the “notice to appear” letter, the charging documents, court dates, possible changes to court dates, copies of transcripts and appeals, the judge’s written ruling—to “No Domicilio Conocido” or “Unknown Address.” That mail will obviously go nowhere.
That’s also a consequence of MPP. If the asylum-seekers had been allowed to stay in the United States, they would have given the address of their sponsor—typically a family member, relative, or friend living in the United States. But most of them don’t know anyone in Mexico.
At times, the judge turned his frustration toward the DHS attorney in court. Too often, he said, the government is charging the respondents with the wrong charges, mixing people who entered at port of entry with those who entered between ports of entry. People who sought admission at a port of entry should be charged as “arriving aliens,” while people who cross the border between ports of entry should be charged as “Entry Without Inspection.”
Because the judge can only rule when charges are accurate, he has to dismiss any cases with wrong charges. That day, he did so in the case of at least one respondent—a man and his young son. That hurts the man, because it means his case will restart from scratch, further prolonging his wait in Mexico, in his case Mexicali.
About half the respondents in court came from Tijuana, while others traveled to San Diego from Mexicali, which is about 110 miles away from the port of entry in Tijuana. The respondents are responsible for showing up at the port of entry on time. Some have to appear at the port of entry as early as 4 a.m. Those who don’t show up on time run the risk of the judge ordering their removal in their absence. For those who arrive on time, a bus and armed detention officers will take them to the San Diego Immigration Court and then escort them right back to Mexico.
These detention officers keep watch on them the entire day: I even saw one officer stand guard by the door as a female asylum-seeker and her daughter used the restroom.