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 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 what kind of case you have, see whether you plan to assert any defenses against removal and, if so, set a date for the "real" hearing of your case, 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 in order to hopefully defend against your removal from the United States. (This guidance assumes that you are not currently in detention, in which case procedures might be different.)

COVID-19 NOTE: The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 required U.S. immigration courts to initially close, then adjust many of the practices described in this article. For in-person court appearances, be ready to wear a mask and observe social distancing; carefully read the instructions you get from the court. In addition, the government is encouraging IJs to avoid holding in-person master calendar and individual hearings, for example by conducting them via video-conference or telephone. Or, if your lawyer and the government lawyer can come to an agreement on your case, you might not need to attend a hearing at all. Hire a lawyer to deal with such issues and procedural challenges. The EOIR's June 2020 memo provides more information.

You Can Take an Attorney With You

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 your hearing in immigration court. If you do that, an 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 presenting your defense and fully showing why you deserve the relief you are requesting, such as a green card.

It's very difficult to comply with all the requirements without an attorney to represent you, who will 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. You will likely want to testify (speak) yourself, with your attorney asking the questions. In any case, the attorney for the government, as well as the judge, are likely to ask you questions and "cross-examine" you 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 judge's decision might rest on whether he or she believes your testimony, and looking professional can help you appear credible.

Who Not to Bring

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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