Individual Hearings in Immigration Court: An Introduction
What is an individual hearing in immigration court?
An individual hearing in immigration court is a noncitizen’s last chance to fight deportation or removal. This is also sometimes called the “final immigration court hearing” or “merits hearing.” During the hearing, an immigration judge accepts evidence and testimony in support of your application to stay in the U.S.
What are some ways to fight deportation?
Several applications exist to help you stay in the U.S. For example, if you’re afraid to return to your home country then you might apply to stay in the U.S. because of that fear, known as asylum. During the final hearing, you’ll present evidence and testimony explaining why you’re afraid. Another example of an application for relief is cancellation of removal. To win this application, you must show exceptional hardship to your family if you’re deported. In a cancellation case, you’ll ask the court to accept evidence and testimony of your family’s suffering. With both applications, a judge will decide if you can stay in the U.S.
How important is the individual hearing?
The merits hearing is the most important appointment you’ll have in immigration court. They are your last chance to fight your deportation or removal. If an immigration judge doesn’t find your evidence compelling enough then you’ll ordered deported. The only option you’ll have after deportation will be to appeal the denial of your application. Appeals are hard to win, and usually require the help of an immigration lawyer.
What happens before the final court hearing?
Several things occur before an individual hearing in immigration court. Let’s look what happens before a final court hearing:
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) files a Notice to Appear (NTA) with the immigration court. The NTA tells the immigration court why DHS believes it’s legal to deport you.
- After the immigration court receives the NTA, it schedules you for an appointment or hearing. These preliminary hearings are called “master hearings.” At the master hearings the court reviews the information in the NTA to see if it’s legal to deport you.
- If the judge decides the NTA supports a deportation, then you can apply to try to stay in the U.S. Such applications are commonly called “applications for relief.” As in: relief from deportation. Note, not everyone qualifies for an application for relief. Whether you qualify is a legal question best left to an experienced immigration attorney.
After the immigration court accepts your application, it schedules your final hearing. The next section discusses the steps to take to prepare it.
How to prepare for your last hearing
Preparing for your final hearing takes many hours of hard work. Luckily, we’ve created a checklist to help you get ready. In other words, here’s your to-do list once an immigration court accepts your application to stay in the U.S.:
Checklist for Individual Hearing
- Prepare an Application. Before the court schedules the final hearing, you’ll need to prepare and submit an application. The application explains to the court why the law allows you to stay in the U.S. Here are some examples of applications used to fight deportation:
- Cancellation of Removal
- Adjustment of Status
- Waivers of Inadmissibility
- Submit Evidence. Any good application requires submission of strong evidence. The types of evidence you submit depends on which application you filed with the court. For example, an asylum application asks the court to allow you to stay in the U.S. because it’s dangerous in your home country. A report from an expert on dangerous country conditions is helpful to show why you can’t return to where you’re from.
- Provide a Witness List. You’ll need to provide the court with a witness list. The list includes people who’ll testify at your hearing. For example, you may have applied to stay in the U.S. to take care of a sick spouse. It’s helpful for your spouse to explain to the judge why you need to stay in the U.S. to take care of them.
- Make changes to your application. Sometimes your circumstances change while you wait for your final hearing. If they do, you’ll need to update your application. For example, if you have a child then you’ll need to inform the court. If you don’t, the a judge could accuse you of lying or hiding information.
What happens at the final immigration court hearing?
So you’ve prepared for your merits hearing. What happens at the final hearing? Here is a simplified version of what happens:
Your final hearing: step-by-step
- The judges reviews your application and you sign it. Before you proceed, the court will give you one last chance to make changes to your application. Next, you’ll sign, and the judge will ask if you swear to everything in the form.
- You testify about your application and your evidence. Next, you’re asked questions about your application and evidence. For example, if you applied for asylum because you’re afraid to go back to your home country, then you’re asked why you’re scared. The first person to ask you questions is your attorney if you have one. The next person is the government attorney or prosecutor. The prosecutor asks things in a way to make you look bad, which makes sense since they’re trying to deport you. Afterwards, the judge may ask you questions.
- Your witnesses testify. Next, your witnesses will testify. They’re also asked about your application and evidence. The same people will ask them questions: your attorney, the prosecutor and judge.
- The judge makes a decision. After steps one, two and three, the judge will make a decision if you can stay in the U.S. Note, sometimes a judge will “reserve” their decision. Meaning, they make issue a written decision or schedule another hearing to make an oral decision.
Timeline of a final hearing
A merits hearing typically takes three to four hours, but could be longer. If the judge grants your application, you get to stay in the U.S. If the judge denies your application, you can appeal the decision. During the appeal, you can stay in the U.S.
Do I need an immigration attorney?
There are many parts to a merits hearing in immigration court. It’s best to have an attorney for the entire immigration process. Here are some key questions to ask when thinking about hiring an attorney:
What ways can an immigration attorney can help with my case?
An attorney can help you prepare your application, evidence and witnesses. Because the attorney knows the law, all three of these things are very important to your chances of remaining in the U.S.
How much does it cost to hire an immigration attorney?
Typically, attorneys change anywhere from $5000 to $25,000 to represent a person through a merits hearing. The cost largely depends on how much time the lawyer will put into your case. This isn’t always true, but most times the more you spend, the more time the attorney and their staff will invest in your case.
What are the risks of hiring an immigration attorney?
First, like whenever you hire an expert, the attorney could do a bad job. Second, a judge normally expects a case to be well-prepared when you have an attorney. Therefore, if the attorney doesn’t prepare a strong case, then you’re stuck with the lawyer’s poor performance.
How do you win your immigration court case?
Winning at an individual hearing in immigration court is not science.
Some tips for your final hearing
- Understand what you need to prove. Are you trying to show hardship? Danger in your home country? Understand what the law needs you to show to win your application for relief.
- Know your evidence. Review all the documents you sent the court. You should know them better than anyone. The judge expects you to be able to explain your case and answer any questions the court has for you.
- Practice testifying. Since the individual hearing requires you to answer questions, it makes sense to practice answering some. Have your attorney ask you questions about your case. Here are some helpful hints to answering questions in court:
- Always be honest.
- Stay calm, even if you don’t know how to answer something
- Be sincere, you’re trying to stay in the U.S. and your demeanor should show that.
What's the difference between a master hearing and individual hearing?
Quick reminder: don’t confuse a master hearing with an individual hearing! The master hearing is a preliminary hearing. At a master hearing, the judge doesn’t review your application to stay in the U.S. Instead the judge decides whether the government can deport or remove you. Once the court finds you deportable, then you can apply to stay in the U.S. if you qualify. Master hearings are typically short appointments that last about 10 minutes.
As discussed above, the application to stay in the U.S. is reviewed at the final hearing. The hearing is much longer and requires you submit evidence and testimony.