An immigration removal proceeding is a legal action that decides whether someone should be removed, or deported, from the United States. They typically begin when someone receives a Notice to Appear. Then, a master calendar hearing is held, followed by an individual hearing. This article explains each of these steps of the proceeding process in more detail, including when, how, and why a judge may terminate a removal proceeding.
Written by Amelia Neimi.
Updated July 26, 2022
What Is an Immigration Removal Proceeding?
At an immigration removal proceeding, an immigration judge decides whether someone may stay in the United States.
In the U.S., the government may begin the removal process — also known as deportation — if someone doesn’t have valid immigration status or if they’ve done something to end their valid immigration status. For example, you may be at risk of deportation if you’ve been convicted of a crime. This can change your immigration status.
Deportation is not an automatic process. The government must prove its case. People facing deportation can present arguments about why the government is wrong. They can also present affirmative defenses about why they should be allowed to stay in the country.
Immigration hearings are held in front of a judge at the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). This is part of the Department of Justice. During these hearings, the judge will listen to evidence from both sides and decide whether someone may remain in the country.
There are three main parts to an immigration removal hearing:
A Notice to Appear
An initial hearing, which is sometimes called the master calendar hearing
An individual hearing
Let’s take a look at how each of these three parts works.
What Is a Notice to Appear?
A Notice to Appear (NTA) is the document the government sends when it’s trying to deport someone. Do not ignore this document. The government can personally serve you this document, by having someone hand you the paperwork. They can also send it to your attorney or your last known address.
There are a few parts to an NTA. First, it will list your name, date of birth, A-Number, and contact information.
Second, it will list facts explaining why the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wants to deport you. This could be because you don’t have legal status or because your legal status has changed. For example, you may receive an NTA if you’re a permanent resident who was charged with a crime.
Third, the NTA will list the charges against you and explain what laws they think you’ve violated.
If DHS can prove the facts are true, they will argue that these laws mean the immigration judge should remove you.
Fourth, this document might list a date and time for your first hearing. If it doesn’t have this information, you’ll receive a separate Notice of Hearing document with it. The first hearing should be at least 10 days after the NTA.
Finally, the NTA will tell you your rights for the hearing. During the hearing, the immigration court will provide a staff interpreter so you can understand what is happening. However, unlike in criminal court, the government doesn’t give people facing immigration removal proceedings a free lawyer. You can hire a private lawyer to represent you at this hearing.
Read the NTA carefully. Keep track of any mistakes in it, especially if you’ve been named in someone else’s case. There may be incorrect facts or dates listed. If you can, find documents that show that DHS’s facts were wrong. You can present this information to the immigration judge during your individual hearing.
Put the hearing date on your calendar, and make sure you attend it. If you don’t go to the hearing, the judge can grant DHS’s request to deport you without hearing your side of the case.
How Do Initial Hearings Work?
An initial hearing is sometimes called a master calendar hearing. Do not skip this hearing. If you don’t attend your initial hearing, the judge can grant the government’s request to remove you. This is called granting their motion in absentia.
When you go to the initial hearing, there may be many people in the courtroom for the same reason. Listen for your name to be called and go to the front of the courtroom.
At the initial hearing, you’ll spend a few minutes in front of the immigration judge. The judge will read DHS’s charges against you that were in the NTA. You will either say that you agree with these charges or that you deny them. Tell the judge if any of the facts in the NTA are incorrect.
You can also tell the judge if you have any defenses to removal or if you want to apply for relief from removal. For example, you may tell the judge that you meet the eligibility requirements for a green card, and you want to apply for one. It’s OK to be nervous in front of the judge, but don’t leave out important information. Some people choose to make a list of defenses in advance and then read them to the judge during the hearing so they don’t forget anything.
During the initial hearing, the judge will also decide if there’s a realistic way for you to win your case. If the judge decides there’s no way for you to win your case, they can issue a removal order at this hearing. The judge can also decide to keep your case going. If this happens, the judge will schedule another hearing that will focus on the merits of your case.
Write down any dates the judge gives you. These dates can include:
The deadline to send in any applications, petitions, or amendments, and
The date of your next hearing.
Again, make sure you attend every hearing. If you don’t, the judge can issue an order for your removal.
Having an immigration lawyer represent you at an initial hearing, and in your deportation proceeding in general, is a good idea. They will look for holes in DHS’s case and explain any defenses you have to the judge.
What Are Individual Hearings?
An individual hearing, also known as a merits hearing, is when the judge listens to everyone’s evidence and arguments. An individual hearing may take up to four hours.
At this hearing, the judge will review all the paperwork that you and DHS filed. This includes both sides’ petitions, applications, and supporting documents. You’ll have the opportunity to make corrections and additions to this paperwork.
Then, you’ll be asked to take the stand. You’ll need to take an oath swearing that you will tell the truth. Even though you’re the respondent to the government’s case, you get to tell your case first when your attorney asks you questions. Then, the DHS lawyer will ask you questions. The immigration judge may also have some questions for you.
Once you finish testifying, you can present your witnesses to the court. Your witnesses might talk about your good moral character as a way to support your stay in the country. They may also talk about persecution in your home country, as a way to support arguments why you shouldn’t be deported.
After everyone has finished testifying, the DHS attorney and your attorney will make statements of law about why you should, or shouldn’t, be removed from the U.S. Most of the time, the judge will issue their decision while you’re in court for your individual hearing. You’ll probably walk out of the court with a final order in your hand.
Generally, the judge will either grant relief from removal, meaning that you can stay in the country, or issue an order of removal/deportation. The judge will explain their reasons for issuing this order.
If you’re unhappy with the results of your individual hearing, you can file an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) within 30 days of receiving the order. DHS can also appeal the judge’s order within 30 days of it being issued. While you’re waiting for adjudication from this court of appeals, DHS can’t deport you.
What Does It Mean When an Immigration Case Is Terminated?
Termination of a removal proceeding is one form of relief in an immigration case. When a case is terminated, it’s removed from immigration court. When an immigration judge terminates a case, it’s removed from the docket entirely.
If the judge terminates your removal case, you don’t have to worry about going to immigration court or being deported. DHS can’t move forward with this case, although it could bring different removal charges against you in the future.
Termination of proceedings is different from administrative closure. With administrative closure, a case is removed from a court’s calendar but remains open indefinitely. DHS attorneys have the option to reopen closed cases down the road. Termination can be a better option for individuals because the case is actually over. It won’t hang over your head indefinitely.
Immigration attorneys often file a motion to terminate removal proceedings in deportation cases. You can file this motion as soon as you receive an NTA or at a later point in your case.
A motion to terminate proceedings will point out all the reasons the government’s case is wrong. This includes any facts that DHS got wrong, if it used a wrong interpretation of immigration law, or if DHS’s legal charges aren’t serious enough for someone to be deported from the country.
Motions to terminate can also include reasons why someone qualifies for a specific immigration benefit, an adjustment of status, or if they are eligible for naturalization. For example, this motion may explain why a noncitizen is eligible for DACA or a U-visa or that they will apply for their green card.
Under new Biden administration guidelines, DHS attorneys are encouraged to exercise prosecutorial discretion by focusing on high-priority cases and end the backlog of pending immigration cases. This may lead to more non-priority cases being closed or terminated.
DHS attorneys and private attorneys might even file joint motions to terminate a removal proceeding if an immigrant is applying for an immigration benefit.
If Removal Proceedings Are Terminated, What Happens Next?
If your removal proceedings are terminated, you can breathe a sigh of relief. You don’t need to worry about the legal action to deport you anymore. You can remain in the country legally, at least for the time being.
However, depending on your immigration status and immigration goals, you may still have a good amount of paperwork or additional applications to complete.
This is especially true if your case was terminated because you filed for an immigration benefit from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Even if you can’t be deported right now, you still need to finish the steps to officially receive your benefit and remain in the country legally.
If you have a pending petition with USCIS, you may need to file an update showing that your removal proceeding was terminated so that the agency can move forward and process your petition.
Alternatively, if you’re applying for an adjustment of status by requesting a family-sponsored green card, you’ll need to continue with this process. You’ll need to file Form I-130, which includes proof of a relationship with your sibling or another eligible family member. Your sponsoring family member will also need to submit information to USCIS proving they have enough income to support you, so you won’t need to rely on public benefits for at least five years after receiving your green card. This is called an affidavit of support.
You might also need to apply for a work permit if you don’t have one already. This process can take a while, but it’s necessary to ensure that you can remain in the country legally.
Although this paperwork can seem daunting, it’s important to complete your application or petition. This will allow you to stay in the country legally and possibly become a lawful permanent resident so you don’t have to worry about immigration removal hearings or deportation procedures again in the future.