While immigration proceedings can seem highly technical and confusing, there is definitely a method underlying the “madness.” This article will walk you through the timeline for typical immigration court proceedings and give you pointers on what to expect and a final decision is likely.
Remember, however, that removal (deportation) cases almost always hinge on nuances of the law and the specifics of the particular case. There is no “typical” immigration court case, and yours could take months or even years to reach a resolution. Consult a licensed immigration attorney right away if you face immigration court proceedings.
What Happens at Each Stage of Immigration Court Proceedings
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.
Initial Issues at the Master Calendar Hearing
Your first hearing in removal proceedings is called a “master calendar hearing,” or simply “MCH.” The MCH is typically very short, lasting approximately 15 minutes. The issues reviewed at an MCH are, however, very important to any case.
During the MCH, you (and the ICE attorney) can address any initial issues in your case. For example, you could be seeking a relatively minor request to change venue to another court location if you reside somewhere far from the court. You could also make a serious challenge against the initial accusations made in the NTA to try to stop proceedings entirely.
Immigration judges have the authority to “continue” (postpone) proceedings, or reschedule the MCH for a later date, if certain issues need time to resolve. For example, immigration judges are usually willing to allow respondents extra time to try to retain legal counsel. In some cases, the respondent might have a pending immigrant petition, which might afford relief from the removal proceedings; immigration judges are sometimes willing to allow time for these petitions to complete processing. Your case could be continued for a short time or a very long time (years even), depending on the underlying reasons for the continuance and the dates the court has available.
If your case contains no further initial issues to review, and if you, the ICE lawyer, and the court view your case as ripe to proceed, the court will schedule your individual hearing. You will receive a written notice of the date, time, and place of your individual hearing from the court clerk at the end of your master calendar hearing.
As with any time you need to come back to immigration court, you could be waiting months or even years for your individual hearing, depending on how busy the court is.
Focusing on Your Case: Individual Hearings
Individual hearings are what they sound like: The court focuses on your individual case to determine whether you are eligible for any forms of relief from removal and, ultimately, whether you will be allowed to stay in the U.S. or not.
Because individual hearings give full attention to a specific respondent’s case, they typically take much longer than the 15-minute master calendar hearings. The immigration court will schedule the individual hearing for a four-hour block, either in the court’s morning or afternoon session. During the hearing, the court will hear testimony and review evidence presented by the respondent and by the government lawyer. After relevant testimony and evidence is presented, the respondent and the ICE lawyer are given opportunities to make final legal arguments as to why the respondent should or should not be removed from the United States.
In some cases, the testimony and evidence presentation can take much longer than four hours, and other related issues can pop up that delay proceedings. In such cases, the court is required to continue the individual hearing to a later date. Of course, such a rescheduling is subject to the court’s schedule and to the availability of the participants. If your case requires a large amount of evidence and testimony, your individual hearing might take years to resolve.
Once all of the evidence has been presented, witnesses have testified, and the legal arguments have been made, the immigration judge will decide whether you should be removed from the United States. In most cases, the judge will state the decision immediately in open court. In some rare cases, the judge will choose to continue proceedings in order to craft a written decision. In either case, your hearings will have reached an end. However, this is not necessarily the end of your proceedings.
Post-Decision Activity: Fighting On Through Appeals
Either you or the government can choose to challenge an immigration judge’s decision. This can be done through a motion to reopen or a motion to reconsider made to the immigration court, or through an appeal directly to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).
Motions to reopen a case are generally filed when one or both of the parties to a case have new facts to present that were not previously available but are relevant to the case. A motion to reopen must usually be filed within 90 days of an immigration judge’s final decision, but some exceptions do exist.
Motions to reconsider are sought usually when either party believes that the court interpreted the law incorrectly. Motions to reconsider must usually be filed within 30 days of the court’s decision, but, again, exceptions can apply.
You may also lodge an appeal directly with the BIA, so long as your appeal is filed within 30 days of the court’s decision. The BIA is a body of people within the EOIR that reviews decisions of the immigration courts. Although the BIA is not required to decide appeals within a certain timeframe, the BIA strives to issue decisions as efficiently as possible. The BIA states that it generally seeks to adjudicate cases in no more than 180 days.
If you received an unfavorable decision in your case and want to fight on, or if the government seeks to appeal a decision in your favor, you could be facing six months or more of time added to your case. There are also possible routes to appeal BIA decisions through the federal appellate courts, which could add considerable time and expense to your case. Definitely consult an immigration attorney if you are considering the long appeals process.