What Is U.S. Immigration Court Like?

The prospect of going in front of an immigration court can be scary, even if you're 100% sure you have the legal right to be in the U.S. or to come to the country. A common question that an immigration lawyer will hear is, "What is going to court like?" Here are some of the things you should anticipate when going into an immigration court proceeding.

A Different Kind of Judge

The judges in American immigration courts aren't quite like the ones you'll see in most other parts of the nation's legal system. In particular, they are not members of the separate judicial branch most people learn about in school. Rather than being part of the federal judiciary, immigration judges are attorneys from the Department of Justice who've been appointed as judges. In other words, you should expect the attitude during the proceeding to be more administrative than you might expect in a criminal or civil case. The appeals board is run by the DOJ.

Limited Constitutional Protections

Immigration rules create a different standard for dealing with rights. For example, someone charged with a crime and then told to appear in immigration court is subject to mandatory detention. This means you can't have an immigration attorney petition the court for your release on bail. If the court elects to release you pending trial, it only does so for its own convenience and not because of a threat of a potential civil rights case over due process.

The Hearings

An individual immigration judge will hear your case. You will be referred to as "the respondent" in your case. Upon receiving notice of a hearing, you will be told when and where to go for your hearing within a month. Missing any hearings is grounds for removal from the U.S.

Your immigration attorney will be asked to address initial issues at the first hearing. This covers things like getting ample counsel, assembling a case, and asking for more time. Continuances can take weeks or years, depending on the circumstances. A second hearing will be scheduled to handle the actual issues at hand.

At the second hearing, evidence and testimony will be presented, showing why your claims to be in the U.S. legal are not justified. You can then contest these facts and assert your own arguments. Closing arguments will be made after both sides have presented their cases. The whole process usually takes a few hours, and the judge typically provides an immediate verdict in open court.