Understanding the steps of Immigration Court

What Happens At Each Stage of Immigration Court Proceedings?

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The overall structure of hearings before the immigration court is, in reality, fairly simple. The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) runs the immigration courts. Each immigration court has one or more immigration judges. Your case will be heard by a single immigration judge, even if it takes place over a series of different days.

Immigration proceedings happen in roughly three stages: initial hearings, known as “master calendar hearings;” hearings focused on the individual, known as “individual hearings” or sometimes "merit hearings;" and post-hearing proceedings for anyone granted relief or for orders of voluntary departure or removal.

Removal proceedings begin when the chief counsel’s office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issues a document called a “Notice to Appear,” or “NTA” for short. The NTA is a charging document, a formal accusation against a person that he or she entered or is present in the U.S. without authorization. An ICE lawyer will be prosecuting the case against you in immigration court.

The NTA is very important: Not only does it state the specific legal reasons why U.S. immigration authorities believe that you are in the U.S. unlawfully, it also puts you on notice that you will be scheduled for immigration proceedings before the immigration court.

If you have received an NTA, you are called the “respondent.” In the past, the NTA itself would notify respondents of their first scheduled court hearing. Today, with immigration courts facing busy case loads, the courts send hearing notices separately to recipients of NTAs.

If you have received an NTA, you can expect to receive a notice from the immigration court within about one week to one month, telling you when and where your first hearing will be. If you have been detained by immigration authorities, the immigration courts take care to schedule your first hearing and send a hearing notice as soon as possible. Carefully note the date and time of your first hearing! If you miss any court hearing, you could forfeit any kind of immigration relief and be ordered removed from the United States.

The date of your first hearing depends on how busy the court is. In recent years most immigration courts have been very busy—there are lots of people in removal proceedings and not enough judges to hear their cases, so waiting times for hearings have been long. Generally, however, your first hearing should be anywhere from a couple months to a year after you get the NTA.

If you are being detained by immigration authorities, things move much more quickly. The immigration courts take care to schedule your hearings as soon as possible, generally within a few weeks, or a few months at the most.

Sometimes people are in immigration court for something other than removal proceedings. For example, if you were detained at the border, asked for asylum, and an asylum officer determined that you don’t have a good possibility of qualifying for asylum, you can ask that an immigration judge review that asylum officer’s determination. These type of immigration proceedings are usually handled in a single hearing, and are completed much more quickly than removal proceedings.