What Is Deportation (Removal)?

Explanation of deportation (removal) and what to expect in removal proceedings.

By , Attorney ● Oklahoma City University School of Law
Updated 5/13/2024

Deportation (also known as removal) is a confusing and scary possibility for foreign nationals living in the United States, but it is important to understand. Let's walk through:

  • what it means to be deported
  • who is at risk of being deported, and
  • what to expect in deportation proceedings in immigration court.

Many foreign nationals are surprised to find that defenses or even possibilities to obtain lawful immigration status with the United States exist within deportation proceedings.

What Does "Deportation" Mean?

The legal term for deportation is "removal," but many people use these two words interchangeably, including attorneys, immigration officers, and immigration judges. We will use the word "deportation" in this article.

First, let's understand the difference between being placed into deportation proceedings, being ordered deported, and actually being deported.

Being placed into deportation proceedings means that the government is starting a process that could end in an order of removal. It normally gives the foreign national an NTA first, listing the charges against them and ordering them to appear in court.

Being ordered deported means that either an immigration judge or an immigration officer has concluded any scheduled hearings with you and determined that you are not permitted to remain in the United States and ordered your departure. (See When Is an Order of Removal From an Immigration Judge Final?)

Finally, being deported means actually leaving the United States, either on your own or after receiving a "bag and baggage" letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) telling you when and where to show up for transport. See If the Immigration Judge Orders Me Deported, What's Next?.

What Leads Someone to Be Deported From the U.S.?

U.S. immigration law contains various grounds of removability; that is, reasons that the United States can legally send a foreign national home or to another country. (See 8 U.S.C. § 1227.)

The most commonly used ground applies to people who have no legal immigration status or right to be in the United States in the first place, likely because they entered the country without permission or overstayed their permitted time under a nonimmigrant visa or the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

Other grounds, which can even apply to a lawful permanent or conditional resident (with a green card), include things like having committed a crime or failed to tell the U.S. government about a change of address. Anyone who is not a U.S. citizen can potentially be placed into removal proceedings.

Someone's removability can come to the attention of U.S. immigration authorities in any of various ways. If the person applies for an immigration benefit and the government denies the application, it might initiate removal proceedings. Or if the foreign national is arrested and the police check receive an "immigration hold" order, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) might detain the person longer than was originally intended and/or immediately check into the person's immigration status and determine they are potentially removable.

Understanding the Deportation Process

There are some possible procedural differences in the path toward deportation, depending on one's immigration history and the way one comes to the attention of U.S. immigration authorities.

Foreign National Placed in Removal Proceedings

The most common way to end up being deported is to first be placed into "removal proceedings." Removal proceedings start because ICE formally accuses the non-citizen of being removable. The government does this when it believes the person is either in the United States without proper documentation, has violated the terms of a visa or other status, or has committed a violation that prevents them from remaining in the United States.

If you are placed in removal (deportation) proceedings, you will be scheduled to appear before an immigration judge, who will then hold one or more hearings and decide whether to order you deported.

Foreign National in Expedited Removal Proceedings

Another procedural path to being deported is what is called "expedited removal." The U.S. government initiates expedited removal proceedings against certain people who are in the United States without documentation or who have misrepresented material facts in order to obtain U.S. admission.

However, you can be placed in expedited removal proceedings only if you are either:

  • at a U.S. port of entry or border, or
  • entered the United States unlawfully and were apprehended within two weeks of arrival and within 100 miles of U.S. borders.

In expedited removal proceedings, you will not see an immigration judge. Instead, an immigration officer will decide whether you should be deported. You will be ordered removed without a court hearing. This process happens very quickly.

Reinstatement of Removal

Another way to be deported is through "reinstatement of removal." The procedure is used only with people who have been ordered deported from the United States in the past and have come back without permission. Like with expedited removal, you will not see an immigration judge. An immigration officer can order and bring about your removal from the United States on this basis.

What Are the Steps in Deportation?

The steps in expedited removal and reinstatement of removal are first, being encountered by an immigration official, then being questioned, then the immigration official determining whether you should be removed and if so, taking final steps to arrange this.

The steps in regular removal proceedings are more complicated and take longer.

  • The government will file a Notice to Appear with the immigration court. Sometimes this document will have a hearing date and location listed on it. Most often, however, you will receive a separate document in the mail with a date and location for your first hearing.
  • You will attend your first hearing, called a "master calendar hearing." Here, you will discuss with the immigration judge (IJ) and the U.S. government attorney whether the charges against you in the Notice to Appear are true and whether you are eligible to apply for relief from removal. If you have no realistic basis upon which to claim relief, you might be ordered deported at the master calendar hearing. Or, depending on the circumstances of your case, you might be scheduled for more than one master calendar hearing.
  • If you are potentially eligible for relief from removal, the immigration judge will set a deadline for you to file any applications and evidence. The immigration judge will also schedule your case to be heard at an "individual hearing."
  • At the "individual hearing", the immigration judge will review your evidence, listen to your testimony and that of any witnesses, and decide whether to approve your application. If the judge denies your application, you will be ordered deported.
  • You can either appeal the immigration judge's decision or accept it as final. If you tell the immigration judge you want to appeal, you will need to file the necessary documents with the Board of Immigration Appeals (B.I.A.) before the deadline the immigration judge sets. So long as you file the appeal on time, you will not be deported while the appeal is pending. (And you might be able to file further appeals to higher federal courts, all the way to the Supreme Court in some cases.) If, on the other hand, you tell the immigration judge you do not want to appeal the order of removal, then it becomes a final order, and ICE will begin the process of deporting you.

Getting Help If You Are Facing Deportation

Being deported or being placed in deportation proceedings can have serious consequences for your ability to stay in or eventually return to the United States. To find out whether your deportation can be prevented, and for help in preparing and presenting your case to an immigration judge, talk to an experienced immigration attorney as soon as possible.

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