Laredo mayor says DHS might relocate judicial tent facility to city-owned site

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'Port court' could be housed in brick and mortar structure

LAREDO, Texas (Border Report) — The mayor of this South Texas city said he plans to ask federal officials about relocating their immigration court from a tent facility to a far less expensive city-owned building.

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz is scheduled to meet with Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf today in Washington, D.C.

He told Border Report that the city is currently offering federal officials a new city building for them to operate their remote immigration courts. Currently, immigration court proceedings for asylum-seekers who are forced to remain in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program, have their asylum hearings in a massive tent structure that is adjacent to an international bridge connecting Downtown Laredo with Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

The immigration judges, however, are located elsewhere throughout the country, in federal immigration courts including Harlingen, El Paso and San Antonio, and the hearings are held via video conferencing.

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz is seen on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in front of the Puente de las Americas Bridge I in Laredo, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

The Department of Homeland Security this year built two judicial tent structures — one by the Puente de las Americas Bridge I in Laredo, and one at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville. Both structures, also known as “port courts,” together cost $70 million per year to operate, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told Border Report last week.

The price tag, Cuellar added, does not include the cost of federal immigration judges or their personnel.

The port courts have been a point of controversy because the public and media are not allowed inside, and lawyers for asylum-seekers also have been denied entry and must go to the federal immigration courts — often miles or hours away from the port courts — to represent their clients.

Read a previous Border Report story on the Brownsville tent facility.

Cuellar said he was disheartened that DHS officials refused to accept an offer from Laredo officials to utilize a new city building, El Portal, to house the immigration court. The city had offered $1 for federal officials to use the building for 18 months, he said.

This photo shows the back side of a building in Laredo, called El Portal, in downtown Laredo across from the Rio Grande, which was offered for use by federal officials to host the federal immigration courts. The City of Laredo offered $1 for 18 months for DHS to use it but they refused and instead built a tent city nearby. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

“The City of Laredo was willing to provide this facility for $1 for 18 months, but they instead decided to spend $35 million –which is half of the $70 million — in Laredo for this tent, in a flood zone where they could have gotten it for $1 from the City of Laredo and much better facilities,” said Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Committee.

Saenz on Saturday confirmed the offer. He spoke with Border Report at Tres Laredos Park, which is located across from the El Portal building.

But Saenz added that he is now hopeful they will reach an agreement on a “long-term” facility, for which the city could apply for grant money.

“They now say they see a long-term use of some facility so they’ve been saying possibly they need to talk to us about moving part of, and dismantling the tents and possibly moving but that’s still up for negotiation,” Saenz said. “Since it’s long-term, we’ll probably ask for consideration for some grant funds.”

Border Report will update this story when more information on the talks are available.

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