There are two major misconceptions that people facing deportation or removal proceedings in U.S. immigration court have. They tend to think either that:
Both these ideas are, while understandable, misguided. Hiring an attorney can be critical to making sure you figure out whether you have any arguments on your side, and then presenting them in a convincing fashion. Besides, the government will have an attorney on its side, questioning you and arguing for your deportation. Wouldn't you want someone on your side, trying to protect your rights?
It's true that immigration court proceedings are less formal than normal court proceedings. No jury will be present, less scripted legal language needs to be used, and everyone understands that the immigrant might not be familiar with American legal procedures.
What's more, the immigration judge (IJ) is expected to act in an impartial manner. That means that the judge is not supposed to automatically side with the attorney who will be there for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but to consider both the DHS's arguments and the immigrant's before coming to a decision.
That is where the good news ends, however. The IJ is not going to think up legal arguments for you, nor help you present your case. The judge might not even know about circumstances in your case that might warrant a favorable decision or an exercise of discretion. And, with a busy court docket, the judge probably doesn't have the time to interview you and find out. Also, sad to say, some IJs behave like government enforcers, with high records of deporting people no matter how strong their cases.
In short, if you show up in court with a charge of being removable, perhaps because you are in the United States without authorization, or you got convicted of a crime after obtaining your green card; and if you can't come up with any reason why you shouldn't be deported other than, "I work hard and have a family here," the judge will have no choice but to deport you.
This doesn't happen at the first, master calendar hearing, however. At that time, the judge will no doubt strongly urge you to get an attorney to help you figure out whether you have any defense against deportation and to represent you at the individual merits hearing.
For an explanation of what happens at the various hearings, see Overview of The Removal (Deportation) Hearings Process.
An attorney will, before the removal hearing, spend the time to discover whether the DHS charges against you are correct and whether any particular circumstances in your life would warrant defending against your deportation.
Because of complexities in U.S. immigration laws, these possibilities might not be apparent to you, even after reading up on immigration law matters. The attorney could, for example:
Even if you believe that you might qualify for one of these defenses or applications, an attorney can help you make the strongest argument possible. The attorney will fill out any required forms, help prepare exhibits (documents backing up your statements), draft legal briefs summarizing the important facts and arguing the case, and prepare you and any witnesses for the court hearing.
If the IJ denies your case, having a solid amount of information on the record will make your chances of a positive decision on appeal much stronger. This is your one and only chance to fully present your testimony and legal arguments. Appeals do not give you a chance at a whole new review of your case, and you won't be there in person; the appeal boards and courts just focus on whether the immigration judge made the right decision given the information presented.
Unfortunately, immigrants are not eligible for free legal representation from the U.S. government. There are often ways to talk to a volunteer attorney at the first deportation hearing, which is basically a scheduling hearing; but immigrants must hire an attorney to represent them in subsequent hearings.
Immigration lawyers tend not to charge as much per hour as, say, corporate attorneys. Also, low-cost services may be available from nonprofit (charitable) organizations that help immigrants and refugees. Also see What Immigration Lawyers Report About Their Fees and Free Consultations.