LAREDO, Texas – Set up immediately next to International Bridge 1 in Laredo, a new 50,000-square-foot tent facility is part of a controversial immigration program, the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as "Remain in Mexico."
The temporary facility is filled with benches and portable rooms. Immigrants sit through hearings with judges who can dial in with video conferencing from San Antonio and elsewhere. It currently has a 428-person daily capacity.
Though they will attend hearings at the temporary facility, the immigrants, most of whom are seeking asylum, will remain in Mexico while their cases are ongoing.
"When they would be allowed into the United States is at the completion of that if they were found to have a merit claim of asylum," said acting director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan.
Laredo is one of two tent facilities operating under the MPP. Brownsville is the other. "Hard-sided, normal courts" are being used in San Diego, Calexico and El Paso, but there are plans to expand.
"The goal is to utilize these facilities along the entire southwest border so that every office and every sector along the southwest border will be participating in MPP in some form or fashion," Morgan said.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said the program should help cases move more efficiently.
"So they're getting hearings in three to six months, master calendar hearings, as opposed to years out if they're released into the U.S. and scheduled on a nondetained docket," said acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan.
Having immigrants wait in Mexico while their cases progress raises safety concerns. On the other side of International Bridge 1 is the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, which, according to the Laredo Morning Times, has recorded 25 gunmen killed in shootouts since August.
The U.S. government has warned its own citizens not to go to the Tamaulipas state, which Nuevo Laredo is part of, due to "crime and kidnapping."
"What happens on the Mexican side of the border we communicate with Mexico about all the time, and, obviously, we make adjustments to facilitate both flow and safety. But it's not our territory, so there's only so much we can do on that side," said Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services when he and other DHS officials were asked about the danger during a tour of the Laredo facility.