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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Expediting a Case in Immigration Court

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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.

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