Formerly referred to as "deportation," removal is the process of the U.S. government determining that an alien—that is, a non-U.S. citizen, whether in the U.S. illegally or with a green card—must be removed from the United States.
The removal or deportation process is complicated, and the stakes are high. Legal representation is essential to develop a defense strategy, preserve the rights of the alien, and present the best case possible in immigration court.
COVID-19 NOTE: The coronavirus pandemic that began in 2020 required U.S. immigration courts to initially close, then adjust many of the practices described below. For in-person court appearances, expect to be required to wear a mask and observe social distancing. Carefully read any instructions you receive from the court.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for commencing a removal proceeding, often through its Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division, chillingly known as ICE.
There are numerous ways in which a non-citizen might come to the attention of U.S. immigration authorities. These include anything from a phoned-in tip that the person is in the U.S. illegally (though followup on these is less common than one might think) to a workplace raid to a check on the immigration status of people in jail to a failed application for asylum, a green card, or even naturalization (U.S. citizenship). (Being denied citizenship is not grounds for removal by itself, but during the process, a criminal conviction or other grounds for removal could come to light.)
DHS must serve the alien with a Notice to Appear (NTA) before an immigration judge. It must inform the person of:
Removal hearings are held before immigration judges (IJs) across the United States, under the auspices of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). The IJ will need to determine whether the non-citizen's actions or lack of immigration status make the person removable from the United States, or whether to grant any legal or discretionary relief.
The first hearing that the non-citizen must attend (in person, unless otherwise arranged) is known as a master calendar hearing. You do not need an attorney at this hearing, though it would be best to bring one. For an idea of what the immigration judge will say and do during this hearing, you can check the judges' Master Calendar Hearing section of the EOIR Policy Handbook.
It is extremely important to attend this first hearing, even if you don't have an attorney and don't know whether you have any realistic defense to removal. If you fail to attend this or any EOIR hearing, an automatic order of removal will be issued against you. The consequences of such an order are severe. Most notably, you will be unable to return to the U.S., with any sort of visa, for ten years.
By contrast, if you appear in court despite having no defense to removal, you might be able to negotiate for what's known as "Voluntary Removal," or VR (also sometimes called Voluntary Departure). The future consequences of this method of leaving the U.S. are much less severe than actually being deported. VR basically means that you admit to having no legal right to remain in the U.S. and agree to depart on your own, thereby saving the U.S. government any further trouble, and keeping your record free of a removal order.
Of course, you don't want to accept VR if you do have some legal basis upon which to remain in the United States. Even after having been placed into removal proceedings, you may be able to qualify for a green card (or argue to keep your green card) based on such grounds as
The above are just a sampling of the possible defenses to removal. You'll want to talk to an immigration attorney for a full review of your case. At the master calendar hearing, you'll be able to tell the judge what sort of defense you expect to mount, and schedule a date for your merits hearing.
If you and your lawyer have a strategy to defend you against removal, you will (unless your lawyer arranged otherwise) present your case at the merits hearing. You will be allowed to testify on your own behalf, with your lawyer asking the questions. You will also have to be examined by an attorney for DHS. In addition, you can present witnesses and exhibits, such as photographs and sworn statements by people who know about your case, or are experts in a relevant topic area.
For example, if you were defending yourself against removal by claiming asylum, you would probably want to testify about your fear of persecution in your home country, present documents about the conditions in your country, include proof that you are a member of a persecuted group and were injured or discriminated against, and perhaps get an expert about that country to testify on your behalf.
Non-citizens are not entitled to free legal representation in immigration court. If you cannot afford an attorney to represent you, contact local nonprofit organizations, which might be able to help you at a reduced cost. In order to achieve a desirable outcome in a removal case, a lawyer's help is typically a necessary cost.