What Happens at a Merits Hearing in an Immigration Case?

During your individual hearing, at which the judge devotes attention to your case and none other, you will be expected to present your defense and fully show why you deserve the relief you are requesting, such as a green card.

If you have been arrested by the immigration authorities, or your case has been referred to immigration court (the "EOIR") after an immigration application that you submitted was rejected, your first hearing will simply be a brief meeting with the immigration judge (IJ), called a "Master Calendar" hearing. There, the judge will quickly look at your case, ask whether you plan to assert any defenses against removal and, if so, set a date for the "real" hearing, called a merits hearing.

You are no doubt nervous about what you will encounter at the merits hearing. Here are the most important things to keep in mind or prepare for. (This guidance assumes you are not currently in detention, in which case the procedures might be different.)

You Can Take an Attorney With You to a Merits Hearing

Both at the Master Calendar hearing and at the merits hearing, you can and if possible should hire an attorney to represent you. The U.S. government will, after all, have its own attorney, who will be arguing hard for your deportation. It can be crucial to not only have an attorney by your side, but to have the attorney's expertise. Before the actual hearing, you and your attorney should have held in-depth discussions about the government's case to deport you and whether the law offers you any possibility to defend against it or argue that you should be granted a right to remain in the United States. The lawyer should have done a fingerprint check to make sure there's nothing negative in U.S. law or immigration enforcement files, and done any needed follow-up research.

Unfortunately, you'll have to pay for your own attorney. You might be able to find one who offers low-cost services, however, if your income is low. The court itself can give you a list, or you can talk to local nonprofit organizations serving immigrants, such as Catholic Charities, the International Institutes, and so forth.

Don't Skip the Hearing

The worst thing you can possibly do is fail to show up for a hearing in U.S. immigration court. If you do that, an "in absentia" order of removal will be automatically entered, and you'll be expected to leave the country right away.

Far better to talk to an attorney about whether you have a possible defense to removal. Many people succeed on an application after the judge has heard the case, even if their earlier application was denied, such as for asylum or a family-based green card. And if you lose at your merits hearing, you'll have a right to appeal.

Who Does What During an Individual, "Merits" Hearing

During your individual hearing, the judge devotes attention to your case and none other. You will be expected to start, by orally presenting your defense (with Q&A from your attorney, if you have one) and fully showing why you deserve the relief you are requesting, such as a green card.

Your attorney (if any) will likely file written briefs on your behalf presenting the facts of your case and explaining why the law allows you some form of relief from deportation. You (or your attorney) can also present testimony from witnesses and submit any documents or exhibits that will support your case.

The attorney for the U.S. government, as well as the judge, are likely to ask you and your witnesses questions and "cross-examine" you or the witnesses after your attorney is done.

If you are able to comfortably testify in English, it will make your hearing go faster. But if you're more comfortable in another language, it's much safer to ask for an interpreter, which the U.S. government will provide, most likely via remote communication technology.

What to Wear to Immigration Court Hearings

It is recommended that you wear clean, neat, and comfortable clothes. Part of the decision might rest on whether the judge believes your testimony, and looking professional can help you appear credible.

Who Not to Bring to Immigration Court

It is a good idea to leave young children at home, as the hearing can take three to four hours to complete. Many merits hearings don't finish on the first day. In that case, the judge can "continue" the hearing to another day, often far into the future, because the court calendars tend to be quite booked up.

If you need to attend an immigration court hearing, you should absolutely speak with a lawyer to help you determine your rights, figure out a defense strategy, and prepare you to testify. Immigration law is hugely complicated, but you might have a chance at a U.S. green card based on a legal theory that you haven't even heard about.

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