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For the last few years, the "hot topic" in asylum has been the backlog--the very long delays caused by too many applicants and too few adjudicators. I recently wrote about the backlog at the Asylum Office and what can be done to expedite a case. One commenter suggested that I write a post about expediting cases in Immigration Court, and since I aim to please, here it is.
Courts are still wrapping up the last of Justice Marshall's immigration cases.
The first thing to note is that the backlog in Immigration Court is huge. According to recent data, there are over 542,000 cases pending in court (not all of these cases are asylum). The average wait time for a case in Immigration Court is 677 days. The slowest court is Colorado, where wait times average 994 days. That's a long time, especially if you are separated from family members while your case is pending. For what it's worth, I have previously written about some ideas for reducing the wait time in Immigration Court (you will be shocked to learn that EOIR has not yet contacted me to implement these ideas!).
Second, advancing a case is not easy. The Immigration Court Practice Manual, page 101, specifically notes that, "Motions to advance are disfavored." The motion should "completely articulate the reasons for the request and the adverse consequences if the hearing date is not advanced." Health problems or separation from family may good reasons to advance. I discuss these and other possible reasons here (the post relates to affirmative asylum cases, but the same logic applies).
Third, expediting a case in Immigration Court is not as straightforward as expediting a case at the Asylum Office. There are different approaches that you can take, depending on the posture of your case. For advancing a case (and for the case itself), it is very helpful to have the assistance of an attorney. Indeed, according to TRAC Immigration, 91% of unrepresented asylum applicants in Immigration Court have their cases denied (whether they get other relief, like Withholding of Removal, I do not know). If you can afford a lawyer (or find one for free), it will be to your benefit in expediting and winning your asylum case in court.
OK, before we get to the various approaches for advancing a court case, let's start with a bit of background. A case commences in Immigration Court when the Notice to Appear--or NTA--is filed with the court. The NTA lists the reasons why the U.S. government believes it can deport (or, in the more bowdlerized parlance of our time, "remove") someone from the United States. After the court receives the NTA, it schedules the alien for an initial hearing, called a Master Calendar Hearing ("MCH"). At the MCH, the alien--hopefully with the help of an attorney--tells the Immigration Judge ("IJ") whether the allegations in the NTA are admitted or denied, and whether the alien agrees that he can be deported. In most asylum cases, the alien admits that he is deportable, and then informs the Judge that his defense to deportation is his claim for asylum. The IJ then schedules the alien for a Merits Hearing (also called an Individual Hearing), where the alien can present his application for asylum, and either receive asylum (or some other relief) or be ordered deported from the United States. Depending where in this process your case is, the procedures to expedite vary.
If you have the NTA, but the MCH is not yet scheduled: In some cases, the alien receives an NTA, but then waits many months before the MCH is scheduled. In this case, the delay usually lies with DHS (Department of Homeland Security), which issues the NTAs and files them with the Court, rather than with the Court itself. The Immigration Court has an automated number that you can call to check whether your case is scheduled for a hearing date. The phone number is 1-800-898-7180. Follow the prompts and enter your nine-digit Alien number (also called an "A number"). The system will tell you whether your case is scheduled and the date of the next hearing.
If the system indicates that your "A-number was not found," this probably means that the NTA has not yet been submitted to the Court. Contact the local DHS/ICE Office of the Chief Counsel and talk to the attorney on duty. Perhaps that person can help get the NTA filed with the Court, so the case can begin.
If your A-number is in the system, but there is no MCH scheduled, contact the Immigration Court directly to ask the clerk for an update. If the Court has the case, it may be possible to file a motion (a formal request) to schedule the case. However, if an IJ is not yet assigned to the case, such a request may disappear into the void once it is filed. Most lawyers (including me) would generally not file a motion until a Judge is assigned, as it is probably a waste of time, but maybe it is possible to try this, if your lawyer is willing.
While you are waiting for the Court to docket your case (i.e., give you a court date), you can gather evidence and complete your affidavit. That way, once the case is on the schedule, you will be ready to file your documents and ask to expedite.
If the MCH is scheduled: Sometimes, MCHs are scheduled months--or even years--in the future. If your case is assigned to an IJ and you have a MCH date, there are a couple options for expediting.
First, you can file a motion to advance the date of the MCH. If the MCH is sooner, the final (Merits) hearing will be sooner as well. Whether the IJ will grant the motion and give you an earlier appointment is anyone's guess. Some IJs (and their clerks) are good about this; others, not so much.
Second, you can request to do the MCH in writing (in lieu of attending the hearing in-person). Check the Immigration Court Practice Manual, pages 70 to 72, for information about filing written pleadings. If the Judge allows this, you can avoid attending the MCH and go directly to the Merits Hearing. Just be sure that your affidavit and all supporting documents are submitted, so you are ready to go if and when the IJ schedules you for a final hearing.
Many attorney, including me, do not like filing motions to advance the MCH or motions for a written MCH. The reason is because they often do not work, and so what happens is this: You prepare and file the motion, call the Court several times, and ultimately have to attend the MCH anyway. When lawyers spend time doing extra work, it is fair for them to charge the client additional money. So don't be surprised if your lawyer tells you that filing a motion will cost extra.
At the MCH: Typically, when you go to the MCH, the IJ gives you the first date available on her calendar for a Merits Hearing. But there are a few things you can do to try to get the earliest possible date.
One thing is to complete the entire case (the affidavit and all supporting documents) and give them to the IJ at the MCH. That way, if there happens to be an early opening, you can take the date (and sometimes, IJs do have early dates--for example, if another case has been cancelled). Many lawyers (again, including me) don't love this because it requires us to do all the work in advance, and it often does not help. Don't be surprised if the lawyer wants to charge extra for getting the work done early (many lawyers--and other humans--prefer to put off until tomorrow what we do not need to do today).
Second, you (or your lawyer) can try to talk to the DHS attorney prior to the MCH to see whether any issues in the case can be narrowed (usually, it is not possible to talk to DHS about the substance of the case prior to the MCH, as they have not yet reviewed the file). If that happens, maybe you will need less time to present the case, and you can tell the IJ that you expect a relatively short Merits Hearing. It may be easier for the IJ to find a one-hour opening on his calendar than a three hour opening (normally IJs reserve a three-hour time slot for asylum cases), and so you may end up with an earlier date. Even if you cannot talk with the DHS attorney, you can tell the IJ that you expect to complete the case in an hour and try to convince him to give you an earlier date, if he has one.
Third, if you have a compelling reason for seeking an earlier Merits Hearing, tell the IJ. If you have evidence demonstrating the need for an earlier date, give it to the IJ. Maybe the Judge will not have an earlier date available immediately, but at least he can keep the situation in mind and accommodate you if an earlier date opens up.
Finally, if you simply arrive early at the MCH and get in line, you may end up with an earlier Merits Hearing date than if you show up late to the MCH since IJs usually give out their earlier dates first.
After the MCH, but before the Merits Hearing: Waiting times between the MCH and the Merits Hearing are very variable, depending on the Immigration Judge's schedule. Assuming that the IJ has given you the first available Merits Hearing date (which is normal - see the previous section), there is not much point in requesting an earlier date immediately after the MCH. Maybe if you wait a few months and if luck is on your side, a spot will open up and your request will be granted. Or--if the Judge has an effective clerk--you can file a motion to advance, and the clerk will save it until a spot opens up for you.
Another possibility is to talk to the DHS attorney to see whether issues can be narrowed, which might make it more likely that the case can be advance (see the previous section).
Some words of caution: Keep in mind that the Immigration Court system is a mess. Judges come and go. Priorities shift, which sometimes causes cases to be moved. It is quite common for court dates to change. Even if you do nothing, a far-off date may be rescheduled to an earlier day, or an upcoming hearing might be delayed. If you successfully advance your court date, it is possible that the Court will later rescheduled your case to a more distant date (this happened to us once). It is difficult to remain patient (and sane) through it all, but maybe being aware of this reality will somehow help.
Also, remember to make sure that your biometrics (fingerprints) are up to date. If not, you may arrive at the Merits Hearing only to have it delayed because the background checks were not complete.
Finally, do not give up. Immigration Judges are human. If they see a compelling reason to expedite a case, most of them will try to help. Explain your situation to the Judge, or let your lawyer explain, and maybe you will end up with an earlier date.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
These days, the estimated wait time for an affirmative asylum case is somewhere between eternity and forever. It can best be expressed numerically as ∞. Or maybe as ∞ + 1. In other words, affirmative asylum cases take a long damn time. (OK, to be fair, you can get some idea about the actual wait time here).
Asylum seekcars waiting for their interview.
For some people, this wait is more of a problem than for others. For example, if your spouse and children are outside the United States waiting for you, and especially if they are living in unsafe or unhealthy conditions, the wait can be intolerable. A growing number of people are abandoning their cases simply because they cannot stand the separation. Others are moving to Canada, which apparently has a faster system than we have in the States. The problem is not simply that the wait is long—and the wait is long. The problem is that we cannot know how long the wait will be. Maybe the interview will come in six months; maybe in three years. Maybe the decision will come shortly after the interview; maybe it will take months or years. This unpredictability contributes to the difficulty of waiting for a resolution to the case.
For others people—single people without children or families that are all together here in the U.S.—the wait may be stressful, but it’s far more bearable. For my clients in this position, I advise them to live as if they will win their cases. What else can they do? To live under the constant stress of potential deportation is unhealthy. And the fact is, most of my clients have strong cases, and the likelihood that they will succeed it pretty high. So it is best to live as normally as possible. Find a job, start a business, buy a house or a car, go to school, make friends, get on with life. In the end, if such people need to leave the United States, they will have time to wind down their affairs and sell their belongings. For now, though, if I may quote the late, great Chuck Berry, Live like you wanna live, baby.
But what if you want to try to expedite your case? How can you maximize the chances that the Asylum Office will move your case to the front of the line?
First, before you file to expedite, you need to complete your case. The affidavit must be finished and all the evidence must be organized and properly translated (if necessary). If you expedite a case and the case is not complete, it could result in real problems. For example, I once had a client put himself on a short list without telling me. Then one day, an Asylum Officer called me and said that they wanted to schedule his interview for the following week. The problem was, the evidence was not submitted (or even gathered) and the affidavit was not done. The client insisted on going forward, and so (while I helped with interview preparation), I withdrew from the case. I did not want to remain affiliated with a case that was not properly put together, and I did not want to represent a person who took action on his case without informing me. In general, there is no value in expediting a case only to lose because you are not prepared for the interview, so make sure your case is complete before you try to expedite.
Second, you need a good reason to expedite. Remember, you are asking to jump your case ahead of hundreds--maybe thousands--of people who are also waiting for their asylum interview. Why should the Asylum Office allow you to do that? One common reason is that the applicant has a health problem (physical or mental). If that is your reason, get a letter from the doctor. Also, provide some explanation for how an early resolution of the asylum case might help improve your health situation (for example, maybe you have a health problem that is exacerbated by the stress of a pending case).
Another common reason to expedite (and in my opinion, the most legitimate reason to expedite) is separation from family members, especially if those family members are living under difficult or dangerous circumstances. If an asylum applicant wins her case, she can file petitions to bring her spouse and her minor, unmarried children to the United States. Many people come to the U.S. to seek asylum not for themselves, but because they fear for the safety of their family. Since it is so difficult to get a U.S. visa, it's common to see asylum seekers who leave their family members behind, in the hope that they can win asylum and bring their family members later. So when the wait for an interview (never mind a decision) is measured in years, that's a real hardship. For our asylum-seeker clients with pending applications, we have seen cases where their children were attacked in the home country, where family members went into hiding, where children could not attend school or get medical treatment, where families were stuck in third countries, etc., etc., etc. Such problems can form the basis for an expedite request.
To expedite for such a reason, get evidence of the problem. That evidence could be a doctor's note for a medical problem or an injury, or a police report if a family member was attacked or threatened. It could be a letter from a teacher that the child cannot attend school. It could be letters from the family members themselves explaining the hardship, or letters from other people who know about the problems (for advice on writing a good letter, see this article). Also, sometimes family members receive threat letters or their property is vandalized. Submit copies of such letters or photos of property damage. It is very important to submit letters and evidence in support of the expedite request. Also, remember to include evidence of the family relationship--marriage certificate or birth certificates of children--to show how the person is related to the principal asylum applicant.
There are other reasons to request an expedited interview: Until an asylum case is granted, applicants may not be able to get certain jobs, they cannot qualify for in-state tuition, they face the general stress of not knowing whether they can stay. While these issues can be quite difficult to deal with, I think that they do not compare to the hardships suffered by people separated from family members. Indeed, if I were in charge of the Asylum Division, I would allow expedited interviews only in cases of family separation.
Once your case is complete and you have gathered evidence in support of the expedite request, you need to submit the request and evidence to the Asylum Office. Different offices have different procedures for expediting. You can contact your Asylum Office to ask about the procedure. Contact information for the various Asylum Offices can be found here.
One last point about expediting asylum cases: The system for expediting cases is not well-developed, meaning that sometimes, a strong request will be denied or a weak request will be granted. There definitely seems to be an element of luck involved in the expedite request process. But of course, unless you try to expedite, you can't get your case expedited. If an initial request is denied, you can gather more evidence and try again (and again). At least in my experience, most--but not all--cases where there was a good reason to expedite were, in fact, expedited.
Besides expediting asylum cases, it is also possible to put your case on the "short list," which may result in an earlier interview date. You can learn more about that and a few other ideas here.
It is still unclear how changes in the new Administration might affect the speed of asylum cases, but I doubt that the asylum backlog is going away any time soon. In that case, for many people, the only options are to learn to live with the delay or--if there is a good reason--to ask for an expedited interview and then to hope for the best.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.