Unlike in criminal court, “public defenders” are not provided for immigrants in removal (also called deportation) proceedings -- at least, not to present your case in its entirety. However, most immigration courts have set up programs where pro bono (free, volunteer) attorneys sign up to handle master calendar hearings. But this is simply an introductory meeting with the immigration judge.
If you you appear at the master calendar hearing without an attorney, and make use of the pro bono attorney's volunteer services at that hearing, you'll need to realize that these services are limited. The attorney's purpose is simply to represent people who have not yet obtained legal counsel -- on the assumption that they will later do so, for their "merits" hearing (if any). You might want to hire the pro bono attorney to continue to represent you, or find one on your own, but you will most likely have to pay him or her.
At the beginning of the master calendar hearing, the clerk will make an announcement asking if anyone is without an attorney. The pro bono attorney will then take all those unrepresented people outside of the courtroom for a brief discussion. The pro bono attorney will ask you a series of questions to attempt to determine whether you have been properly served with the Notice to Appear (NTA) and other documents, to attempt to determine whether you are removable as charged.
If you appear to be removable, the attorney will try to assess whether or not you have any possible relief from removal. At that point, the pro bono attorney will attempt to advise you as to the best way to proceed at the master calendar hearing once your case is called.
Here are some examples of how the pro bono attorney's services would assist you. Let's say, for example, that you are being charged with removability but you believe that you actually have a claim for U.S. citizenship. In that case, instead of admitting to the government's charge that you are not a U.S. citizen, you would deny that charge and deny removability.
Now, depending on the evidence the government is prepared to show you and the judge, it will usually ask for more time to show proof that the charges are correct as stated. In this case, the judge would probably set the matter for a future hearing on a later date. The judge would also probably give you a deadline to submit proof of your claim prior to the date of the new hearing. The new hearing would address the question of your citizenship and other contested charges based upon the evidence you and the government attorney have provided to the judge for consideration.
The pro bono attorney will assist you in deciding whether to admit or deny each individual charge and will also speak on your behalf. Or, in this example, the pro bono attorney might instead advise you to obtain an immigration attorney to review your claim for citizenship before admitting or denying the charges. In this case, the pro bono attorney would likely request a continuance (postponement) of your master calendar hearing to give you time to get an attorney who can represent you on this issue and throughout the proceedings. The judge is likely to grant a brief continuance for you to get an attorney.
If you get a continuance to get an attorney, the next hearing would be called a “continued master calendar hearing.” This is different than a merits hearing, because you were not able to move forward on taking pleadings, since you needed more time to get an attorney.
If you had no basis for denying the charges, you would want to inform the court of any intent to apply for specific affirmative relief from removal. The pro bono attorney might assist you in pleading to the charges and would tell the judge your intended relief. Alternatively, the pro bono attorney would advise you to get an attorney first before moving forward and taking pleadings on the charges, particularly if it is unclear whether you have any relief from removal.
Again, if you end up taking pleadings, the judge would set the matter for a merits hearing, where your cases will be decided. You will be given certain deadlines for submitting your applications and supporting evidence. If your pro bono attorney advises you to get an attorney first, then the judge will consider your request for a continued master hearing.
At a minimum, the pro bono attorney will ensure that you receive a copy of the NTA and charging documents relevant to your case as well as any new hearing notice. Those are important so that you will have something to show your attorney when discussing your case.
In most cases, if the master calendar hearing is your first appearance before the judge, you are likely to be granted a continuance to obtain an attorney. Be prepared to answer questions by the judge regarding your attempts to obtain an attorney up to this point, why you haven’t obtained one, and how much time you think you need to obtain an attorney.
The judge will usually ensure that you have received information about local community, nonprofit organizations, which often provide low-income people with low-cost (or in rare cases, free) immigration help. Depending on the court’s calendar, you may be granted up to 60 to 90 days, and you will be expected to return for the continued master hearing with an attorney present.
If you need to find low-cost help, don’t delay – many community organizations have more clients than they can easily handle. They receive no government funding, but must make do with the small amounts that come in from private sources and client fee payments. You will need to do some calling around, and possibly wait a few weeks for your first appointment.
If you return for the next hearing without an attorney, still requesting more time, be prepared to answer tough questions as to why you are still unrepresented. For example, if you waited until days before the hearing to contact an attorney, you are likely to be faced with an impatient judge. You may still be granted a brief continuance, but you are taking a risk, because your first continuance was granted and you were expected to take that deadline seriously. If the judge feels that you are simply taking advantage of the process, you could be expected to take pleadings and move forward on your case. Doing so alone is not a good idea. Immigration law is complicated, and the government attorney will be doing his or her best to convince the judge to deport you.