DHS sets up tents in Laredo for asylum hearings despite city property offer for $1

Laredo officials offered DHS city-owned property for 18 months

By Jessie Degollado - Reporter, Sal Salazar - Photojournalist

LAREDO, Texas - Tents that will be used as temporary courtrooms for asylum hearings are going up in Laredo, and city officials aren't happy about it.

The mayor has offered the Department of Homeland Security a city-owned property near Bridge One instead of the tents, which were erected on a floodplain.

The Rio Grande isn't far from where the two large tents are going up quickly ahead of the first asylum hearings next month. And although the site is along a concrete embankment above the riverbank, the area was underwater during the 2010 flood brought on by Hurricane Alex.

The Rio Grande was more than 42 feet above flood stage.

Photo courtesy: City of Laredo

When Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz showed DHS proof of the flooding, “They're saying if the flood comes, they could dismantle and stop operation, and, I guess, put it back again."

The mayor says DHS has revisited the city's facility with all the amenities DHS needs for asylum hearings. Officials with the department told him they'd get back to him in a couple of weeks.

Rep. Henry Cuellar said the city of Laredo offered the 21,000-square-foot office space for 18 months for only $1. Instead, he said the cost of retrofitting the tents into virtual courtrooms is significant.

“You’re going to spend millions of dollars, and that shows you how reckless the federal government can be in using federal dollars.”

Since the city facility is adjacent to the international bridge within sight of Mexico, Cuellar and city leaders are hopeful DHS will reconsider its decision.

DHS sent KSAT the following statement regarding the matter:

“The federal government has begun the process of developing temporary, soft-sided structures to serve as MPP-only hearing sites, in order to address the limitations of the current immigration court locations. A contract has been awarded for temporary court facilities to be erected in the cities of Laredo and Brownsville, and DHS expects construction to begin within the next two weeks.

“The expansion of MPP will exceed the capacity at existing immigration courts, requiring DHS and DOJ to establish additional court space in and around the Ports of Entry. Building new soft-sided hearing locations will allow the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to address MPP dockets in a more targeted manner, resulting in cases being completed more efficiently. Building permanent immigration courts would take more time and limit flexibility in responding to changing migratory patterns.

"DHS is evaluating options for additional locations along the Southwest Border where these temporary structures would provide immediate relief.”

Saenz and Cuellar were among a delegation who met last week with DHS officials. They said DHS told them the process was already too far along and there was a limited timeline that had to be met. 

Saenz and Cuellar said just a few hours after the meeting, however, DHS signed the contract for the tents. 

"It just defies logic," Saenz said. "But then again, it's the federal government." 

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