With no attorney, how should I deal with upcoming immigration court date?

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Question

I received a Notice to Appear in immigration court. I spoke with an attorney, but his fees are too high for me. I have not had a chance to find a new attorney and I have court this week. What should I do?

Answer

First of all, don't skip the court date. When you receive a Notice to Appear in Immigration Court (an “NTA”), you are expected to appear on the scheduled date. If you do not appear, the judge can order that you be removed to your home country.

If this happens and an order of removal is issued in your case, it will be extremely difficult for you to undo the damage. This would involve a legal procedure called filing a motion to “reopen” your case in order to then request relief from removal. See Nolo's article, "Ordered Removed in Absentia: What Can I Do?" for more on this. Such motions are granted only for narrow, unusual reasons.

So, you need to go to court, and you'll find it much easier to do so with an attorney to help you. Representing yourself in immigration court is not impossible, but you'll likely do much better with an attorney's help. The attorney should spend time with you before you appear in court to discuss any and all possibilities for defending yourself against deportation, and work out a strategy in a confidential (private) setting. The attorney will also be familiar with court procedures for filing legal documents, and able to write briefs and motions setting forth supporting arguments about the law, the facts of your case, and appropriate legal procedures.

By law, the Notice to Appear must be dated ten days prior to the court date. The idea is that, during these ten days, you'll be able to find an attorney. If you check your NTA and it was issued fewer than ten days prior to your hearing, you can point this out to the judge. When you appear for your first hearing, called a “Master Calendar Hearing,” respectfully ask the judge for more time to continue your search. Be prepared to explain to the judge why you haven’t found an attorney, by when you think you will have one, and your plan for finding one.

Finding an attorney you can afford may be challenging, however. Although U.S. immigration law says you have the right to representation by competent counsel, it doesn’t say anything about the government being responsible for paying for this. In other words, you are responsible for all costs and responsibilities associated with hiring an attorney.

Many reputable nonprofit organizations provide free or low-cost legal services. Some may even work with you to find a pro bono (volunteer) attorney at a law firm. Check the Immigration Court list of providers of low-cost immigration legal services.

by: Cheryl Geiser

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