A master calendar hearing (“MCH”) is a short, preliminary hearing on immigration matters—the usual start to efforts to remove an immigrant from the United States. You will meet with the immigration judge (IJ) and the government attorney to figure out how your case will proceed. The IJ will schedule dates for your submission of written documents, and for your individual merits hearing (at which the substance of your applications or claims and/or defenses will be addressed in detail). If you have an attorney, he or she will answer most of the IJ’s questions.
During a MCH, the court will not consider any legal claims or defenses of your case. You will not be questioned about your case or immigration applications, and will not present any witnesses. The IJ will not make any rulings regarding legal issues in your case.
IMPORTANT COVID-19 NOTE: The coronavirus pandemic is requiring U.S. immigration courts (EOIR) to adjust many of the practices described below. At the least, expect to be required to wear a mask and observe social distancing for the duration of the pandemic. In addition, the EOIR is encouraging IJs to avoid in-person master calendar hearings by having immigrants' lawyers file paperwork explaining what defenses they'll be claiming, then scheduling individual hearings. You'll really need to hire a lawyer for that, though. See the EOIR's June 2020 memo for more information.
You will first receive a Notice to Appear (“NTA”), which will specify the date and place of your MCH. Under normal circumstances (without any COVID-19 adjustments), you must personally attend your MCH, even if your lawyer attends as well.
You may bring family members with you to the court. Make sure that they have legal immigration status. Otherwise, they may be arrested. It is not a good idea to bring children. Dress appropriately, in clean, neat, relatively conservative clothes.
Arrive on time at your MCH. If you are absent, or even late, you could be ordered deported “in absentia” (due to your absence). Or, the IJ might deny your legal claims or defenses. Arriving early is a particularly wise idea because going through a federal security checkpoint can take a while.
Try to find out ahead of time how your local immigration court operates. Bring important documents with you: your identification documents (passports, a driving license), your NTA (or another “hearing notice” that directed you to come to court), and any original documents that might be helpful at this preliminary stage (based on your lawyer’s suggestion). Also bring your personal calendar, because the IJ will schedule deadlines in your case.
During a typical MCH, you will be before the IJ for about five to 20 minutes only, although you might be in court for several hours (including time to check in and wait). Plan accordingly.
You will not normally be the only one in court at the time of your MCH. Other people will have their MCHs scheduled in the same time block as yours, and might be in the same room with you. Once ready for your case, the IJ will call you by your Alien Registration Number (“A-Number”) and your name. You and your lawyer, if you have one, will then come forward.
If you do not feel comfortable using English, do not force yourself. By attempting to communicate in a language you do not fully understand, you can only hurt yourself, in the likely event that you misunderstand some aspect of the court proceedings. Tell the IJ that you need an interpreter, and one will be provided for free, most likely via electronic communication.
If you cannot understand the interpreter or he or she is not translating correctly, alert the IJ, who will then look for another interpreter or reschedule the MCH for another date (when another interpreter is available). If an interpreter is provided, make sure to listen until he or she finishes translating, and then answer in your native language. You cannot bring your own interpreter.
A judge will start your MCH by asking you for brief identification information: your name, address, native language, and any other languages in which you are fluent. If you bring an attorney with you, you will also have an opportunity to officially present him or her as your lawyer (enter his or her “notice of appearance”).
The judge will also review the charges listed against you in your NTA (the legal reasons the U.S. government seeks to deport you), and you will have to admit or deny each charge. Make sure to read your NTA carefully before your MCH. Tell the judge if anything in the NTA is incorrect.
If you are applying for asylum, for example, the charges against you will typically include the following: the date when you entered the U.S., your nationality, and whether you either entered the U.S. without being inspected at the border by immigration officials, overstayed a visa, or entered using false travel documents. It's usually best to deny any charges of fraud.
You will then be able to tell the judge what forms of defense you are claiming or what relief you are seeking. Examples include asylum, withholding of removal, voluntary departure, cancellation of removal (for an undocumented person or a green card holder), or adjustment of status. If you are seeking asylum, make sure to also apply for (1) withholding of removal, and (2) protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
The IJ will set important dates for your case, such as: (1) when to submit any pertinent applications (or amendments or additional information); (2) a date for another MCH if necessary; and (3) a date for your individual merits hearing.
You must meet all of the deadlines that the IJ sets. Therefore, you'll want to ask for extensions of deadlines and/or for “continuances” (rescheduled hearings) if the time proposed by the judge does not give you sufficient time to present your arguments well. Be ready to explain why you need additional time. Also remember to request a continuance (another MCH) if you need time to find an attorney or if you had just found one and he or she needs time to meet with you.
At the conclusion of your MCH, you will be given another Notice, specifying the date for your next MCH or for your individual merits hearing.
If you are applying for asylum, there are many important issues you must be ready to address at this initial hearing. Do everything you can to line up an attorney before you appear in court.
First, the IJ will ask you to designate a country of removal. It's best not to designate any country. The basis of your asylum application is that you are too afraid to go back to your home country, so never designate your home country. The judge will then typically designate your home country as a country of removal, as a formality.
If you are applying for asylum and accept an “expedited removal” schedule, your individual merits hearing will be scheduled for within 180 days of when you first submitted your asylum application. Realize that this might not give you sufficient time to prepare a detailed asylum application and strong supporting documents. If you waive expedited removal, however, you will not be eligible for employment authorization while your application is going through the Immigration Court process. (If you are detained, you will be placed in an expedited removal schedule, and will not be allowed to waive it.)
Another consideration is the basis upon which you are applying for asylum. The persecution you feared or experienced must, as a matter of eligibility, have been due to your fitting into on one of five categories or "grounds." If "particular social group" is the ground you're claiming, some immigration judges will want to hear your description of that group at the master calendar hearing, and will consider any definition that comes later as being too late. (This was the result of a case called Matter of W-Y-C.) It's a complicated analysis that truly needs a lawyer's help.