Immigration Court: An Overview

Immigration Court: An Introduction

Immigration court is an agency that that decides whether to deport a non-citizen from the United States. The are a part of the Department of Justice.  Further, within the DOJ, they fall under the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), which consists of immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals.  Thus, they are executive branch agencies that work under the President of the United States.

As a result, immigration courts are not part of ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  ICE is in charge of arresting, detaining, and placing non-citizens in deportation proceedings.  ICE is akin to the police and prosecutor.  By contrast, immigration courts decide whether or not to order someone removed from the U.S.

How many immigration courts are there?

There are approximately 66 immigration courts located across the country, usually in big cities — like Boston, New York City, and San Francisco.   Because there is not an immigration court in every city, officials may file your case in an immigration court in a city where you don’t live.  However, most of the time the government will assign your case to a city near to you.

Where are they found?

Usually, immigration courts are located in one of three types of places.  It could be found in a:

  • large federal building, which is home to many different federal agencies and courts;
  • standalone building, which only houses the immigration court; or
  • jail or detention center.

When you first enter an immigration court, you’ll pass through security and enter a waiting area.  From there, you’ll need to go to the court belonging to the immigration judge who will hear your case.

Is immigration court similar to criminal court?

In many ways, they are.  First, there’s a judge, there’s a prosecutor, and there’s a defendant.  But instead of charging the “defendant” with a crime, the prosecutor will charge a person with being deportable or removable from the United States.   And instead of giving the “defendant” a punishment of jail time, the immigration judge can decide whether or not to order the person to be deported from the United States.

 

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The Immigration Court Process

What happens in immigration court?  There are several steps in the immigration court process. While every case is different, here’s a rough overview of what happens.

Step one

The court process begins when ICE (the prosecutors) file a charging document called a Notice to Appear (NTA).  The NTA tells you under which section of law the government is seeking to deport you.  Be sure to read it carefully.

Step two

Second, you will appear in court at something called a master calendar hearing.  This is a preliminary hearing.  On this day, the immigration judge won’t tell you whether you’ll be deported or not.  He or she will tell your rights and make sure that you received a Notice to Appear.  The master calendar hearing will usually end in one of two ways.

  • The immigration judge may give you more time to prepare your case or to find an immigration attorney, or
  • If you’re ready to respond to the charges listed on the Notice to Appear, the judge will take your response.

Step three

At usually the second or third master calendar hearing, you will respond to the allegations on the Notice to Appear.  This means you’ll have to deny or admit that you are removable from the country (called the “pleading stage”).  It’s much like when a criminal defendant declares himself guilty or not guilty of a crime.

Step four

Fourth, if  you are found deportable by the immigration judge, you may have a chance to apply for relief from deportation.  Of course, you have to be eligible.  There are several types of relief applications, including asylum, cancellation of removal, adjustment of status, and voluntary departure.

Step five

You apply for relief and file with the immigration court any supporting documents.

Step six

Then, you will attend an individual hearing (also called a “merits hearing”).  There you can present witnesses and testimony in support of your application.  You can think of this as a mini-trial, or an evidentiary hearing.

Step seven

Finally, the immigration judge will make a decision on your application for relief.  If he grants it, you will not get a deportation order.  Alternatively, if he denies it, you get a deportation order.

If you lose your case, don’t worry. You will still have an opportunity to appeal your case.

 

Immigration Court Case Status

Before, during, and after your hearings, you have to stay on top of your immigration court case status.  To learn how, check out our in-depth explanation of how to check your immigration court hearing date.

Quick Tips

However, if you’re short on time, here are a few quick tips on how to stay on top of your court case status.

  1. First, make sure you learn your next hearing date and check it often.  The hearing date can change, and hearing notices can get lost in the mail.  So you need to check online, check the automated EOIR case information page, or call the immigration court directly.   More on this here.
  2. Second, know the address of the immigration court, so that on the day of the hearing you’ll know exactly where to go.
  3. Third, learn any deadlines in your case. For example, has the immigration judge given you a deadline for submitting an application?  Has he given you a deadline for finding an immigration attorney?  He should have given you this information either orally at a hearing, or through a written scheduling order.  If you’re not sure, then you need to find your immigration records.

Immigration Judges

What are immigration judges? They are lawyers in charge of deciding whether or not to order the removal of certain non-citizens.  Within each immigration court, there are several courtrooms.  Usually, only one immigration judge presides over each courtroom.

In theory judges are supposed to be neutral.  The law requires that they fairly weigh the law and evidence, and only order deportation when required.

Significantly, all immigration judges have law degrees.  Interestingly, most had prior experience in government.  Some were in the military, and many are former prosecutors.

Immigration Court Lawyers

It’s hard to represent yourself in any court, especially when you’re facing deportation.   Thus, we advise that you get an immigration court lawyer.  Immigration lawyers, like all professionals, can be good and bad, cheap and expensive, and specialists or generalists.  Here are some thoughts on finding legal help for your court case.

Free immigration court lawyers

Some non-profit organizations and immigration lawyers work for free.  They are called pro bono immigration lawyers.  Pro bono is the Latin phrase meaning “for the public good.”

You can find a list of pro bono immigration lawyers here.

There are pros and cons to hiring a free immigration attorney.

Pros:

  • It doesn’t cost anything
  • People that work for free are generally devoted to the cause of helping immigrants.

Cons:

  • Free lawyers don’t necessarily have the same incentive as a private immigration lawyer that cares deeply about the reputation of his or her law practice.
  • Pro bono attorneys are often restricted on what types of immigration cases they can take.  For example, many pro bono organizations won’t take cases where the non-citizen has criminal history.  Or the organization specializes in only one type of deportation case, like asylum.
  • Free attorneys often have much larger caseloads than private attorneys, and will have less time to spend on your immigration case.

How do I find a lawyer for immigration court?

If you’re interested in paying a private lawyer to help with your deportation case, our advice is to find a lawyer that is specialized in immigration law.  To be specialized, the attorney has to demonstrate that he or she has done a lot of immigration cases, and has passed an exam on immigration law.

Tips

  1. You can start by checking with the state bar website for the state in which your court is located.  See if they grant legal specialization to immigration lawyers, and if so, there should be a legal directory for specialized immigration lawyers.
  2. Virtually all immigration lawyers should have a website for their practice.  Find out how much experience each lawyer has.  Find out if they have done deportation cases, and how many.
  3. Don’t forget to check online reviews.  While fake positive reviews abound, if you see lots of bad reviews, consider it a red flag.

If you can’t afford a private immigration lawyer, then you can check the EOIR directory for pro bono legal help.

 

How to Change Your Immigration Court

Often immigrants are told to go to an court that is not nearest to them, and it make sense to change your immigration court.  This can happen in a few situations:

  1. ICE released you from immigration detention;
  2. You move to a new address;
  3. ICE made a mistake and filed its case against you in a faraway immigration court

To change your immigration court, you will need to file a request called a motion to change venue.  A motion to change venue is a request for your current court to transfer your case to a new court.

What you need to move your immigration court

To move your case to a new court, at a minimum you’ll need to do the following:

  • first, you’ll need proof of your new address, which could include mail you’ve received at your new address, bank statements, driver’s license, etc., and
  • second, you’ll typically need to make sure that the pleadings have been taken in your case

As to the latter, you may able to submit written pleadings to the immigration court.

 

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