Court Watch: Federal Magistrates’Court

With the support of the ACLU of Texas, a group of citizens in the Rio Grande Valley Brownsville  is organizing people to go into federal magistrate’s court to observe the proceedings that have targeted Central American refugees and especially those who are being separated from their families.

Being a witness in the courtroom is a powerful tool in the service of some of the most vulnerable people in our midst. The few of us who have had the good fortune to be in the court have noticed how the presence of “outsiders” has an impact on the judge’s behavior, encourages the public defenders to do a better job, and allows the community to serve as witnesses to this barbarity.

If you would to join our roster of volunteers; Please sign up here:

What is needed:

The court observer would need to be able to be present in the Brownsville Federal Magistrate’s Court (2nd floor, Vela Federal Courthouse, 600 East Harrison, Brownsville) or in the McAllen Magistrate’s Court 1701 U.S. 83 Business #1011, McAllen, TX 78501) by 10am (or, if going in the afternoon, by 1:30pm).

The observer would need to stay until the end of the proceedings. Court can run two hours or longer, but, typically, in Brownsville, they are over by noon. The most important part of the hearing is at the end, when the judge asks the immigrants if they might have anything to say–thus the need to try and stay until the end.

The observer would need to capture the names of the defendants as well as their case numbers. You will hear these names and numbers at least three times, but the acoustics can be challenging and there are many names. But the names are crucial for noting which defendant, at the end of the hearing, made a comment, didn’t speak Spanish, had particular issues (on crutches, distressed, etc).

The observer is asked to report back (to Michael Seifert) what was seen during the time in court, and this as soon as possible, although in the way that best suits the observer (a  phone call is fine: (361) 589-5068. The information is critical to the fight to stop this process.

What else to know:

Best to come with a friend! The court experience can be difficult—that is how horrible the process is. Note taking is a challenge, as well.

Dress  “business” informal. Women are not allowed into court with sleeveless outfits (the court makes those rules); no shorts or tennis shoes.

You need to have a photo id and you will need to leave your cell phone and electronics in the car.

The Process

When you go into the court, there is a security post. They will ask you why you are there, you can tell them that you are there to observe the magistrate’s court.

Once through the security check, in Brownsville you go to the second floor (in McAllen, to the 8th floor). Go to the judge’s court–either Torteya or Morgan in Brownsville (I will let you know the day of the hearing) or Hacker or Ormsby in McAllen.

If you are not allowed into the court:

The security detail who guard the court may tell you that there is no room and that you cannot go in. It is helpful to ask, “Is there someone I can speak to about being denied entry to a public court hearing? How do I speak to the clerk (of the court)?”

Security has heard this many times, and they will tell you where to go. Please take the time to register a complaint with the clerk (“it is the public’s right to be in these courtrooms”).

They may or may not let you in (there really is a problem with the space). Please let me know how this plays out.


Thank you.