immigration court

immigration court

What Happens at a Master Hearing and Individual Hearing in Immigration Court?


Immigration law generally is complicated. It is even more complicated when you are placed in removal proceedings and notified that you must attend your removal hearing in the immigration court. You can be placed in removal proceedings as a result of many things including referral affirmative asylum application, defensive asylum application via US border (e.g., parole, CBP One, entry without inspection), denial or expiration of your immigration status, ICE arrest/detention, abandonment of your permanent residency or criminal history. There are two main types of immigration hearings that you must attend: a master calendar hearing and individual calendar hearing.

This article will help explaining how the removal proceeding works and answering some of the basic questions you may have if you would like to know what happens at an individual calendar hearing. We encourage you to talk to our experienced immigration lawyers directly about your specific case in order to avoid any potential problems or complications.

What is a Removal Proceeding?

When you are placed in removal proceedings (also known as deportation proceedings), that means:

  • The government is alleging that you are removable or deportable from the United States.
  • You received a charging document, called a Notice to Appear (NTA), which orders you to appear before an immigration judge and provides notice of the removal proceedings, the alleged immigration law violations, and the consequences of failing to appear at scheduled hearings.
  • DHS has filed that NTA with one immigration court; and

Tip: The date on the NTA is not always the correct date of your hearing. Once the immigration court receives your NTA, which must be filed by the DHS, the court will schedule your initial hearing (Master Hearing) date. After you have been served with the NTA, you will need to frequently check your case status online at EOIR Automated Case Information System using your 9-digit A-number. The fact that you received NTA does not necessarily mean that it has also been filed with the court. If the NTA has not been filed with the court, then you are not yet in removal proceedings. If you enter your A-number in the online system and the system gives you error message: “No case found for this A-Number”, then this means that your case is not yet in immigration court, which also means that you are not yet in removal proceedings. Sometimes, it takes months for the case to begin in immigration court. In the meantime, if you need to file your asylum application, you can file for asylum affirmatively with the USCIS. You do not need to wait for the removal proceedings to begin to be able to file your asylum application. You can file it affirmatively with the USCIS.

What is a Master Hearing?

When receive the Notice to Appear (NTA), your first appearance before an immigration judge in removal proceedings is at a Master Hearing, which is a preliminary hearing. At the master hearing, your attorney, DHS, and the immigration judge will discuss the preliminary matters in your case, including the forms of relief (e.g., Asylum, Withholding of Removal and Relief Under Convention Against Torture), enter pleadings (see below), set deadlines, discuss the need for an interpreter, documents to be filed, and schedule your Individual Hearing. If you have an immigration lawyer representing you, there will not be much for you to say at the master hearing.

Most master hearings are currently held remotely via WebEx. This means that your attorney and, in most cases you, can appear at the hearing online. You need to confirm this beforehand because some judges require the applicants to appear in person. One of the important steps in the Master Hearing is called “Pleadings”, which means your response to the allegations/charges contained in the NTA. Your attorney must review the NTA together with you to confirm the accuracy of the facts and legal allegations that make you removable from the United States, and notify the court at the master hearing whether you admit all those allegations and, as a form of relief (i.e., defense) from removal you are asking for asylum, cancellation of removal, Prosecutorial Discretion, etc.

Please note that most judges currently allow respondents to file Written Pleadings (i.e., what is discussed above gets filed in writing instead of discussed orally) and avoid having to show up at the master hearing altogether. To do so, your attorney needs to review the NTA with you as far ahead of the master hearing as possible, then prepare Written Pleadings and Motion to Waive Master Hearing, and file it with the immigration court. The judge will review and issue a written Scheduling Order, which will set the Individual Hearing date and important deadlines.

Immigration judges love to waive master hearings because it helps them avoid extra time for your case at the master hearing, which is usually overcrowded with other cases anyways. If you choose to waive your master hearing, it can substantially expedite the date of your individual hearing. However, the date of your individual hearing will be scheduled randomly and there is a risk that it may conflict with your attorney’s calendar, in which case a motion for continuance would be required. Therefore, some attorneys prefer not to waive the master hearing and appear online so that they can choose and coordinate the date for your individual hearing. Additionally, you and your attorney must discuss, as part of your case strategy, whether it is in your best interest to waive the master hearing thereby expediting your case.

What is an Individual Hearing?

At the master calendar hearing, the immigration judge will schedule your “Individual Hearing.”

Individual calendar hearing is also known as “Merits Hearing” or “Trial” or “Evidentiary Hearing.”. This is the main hearing in your case, where you will present your case and supporting documents, you and witnesses will testify, and your attorney will make arguments. The date for your individual hearing will depend on the judge’s calendar. Some judges have sooner dates, and some have dates available only 1-3 years after your master hearing. You can always request to expedite your hearing date by requesting so at the master hearing or by filing a Motion to Advance. All requests to expedite are considered on case-by-case basis and the judge’s availability. Sometimes, your immigration judge may have a window open due to another case being rescheduled or terminated, and the judge may agree to set your hearing at a much sooner date.

When the immigration judge schedules your Individual Hearing, the judge will inform you and your attorney about the deadlines for filing additional documents, updated statements, country reports, and legal brief in support. By default, these deadlines are set at 15 calendar days before the Individual Hearing. However, some judges set these deadlines at 30 days or earlier. It is important to note and follow these deadlines.


You Must Arrive On Time

You must arrive at the immigration court prior to the set time for the individual calendar hearing. Once you arrived at the immigration court, you should check in with the immigration court staff and sign in, if a sign-in sheet is available. Please keep in mind that you may encounter delays in passing through mandatory security screening prior to entering the court.


All Your Family Members and Witnesses Must be Present

All your family members who are included in your case must be present with you at the individual hearing. However, minor children can be excused with prior authorization of the judge (usually done at the master hearing). All your witnesses who are in the US and available should also attend your hearing. While written affidavits from witnesses may be accepted as evidence, their in-person presence in your individual hearing is much more valuable.


Expert Witnesses

During the preparations for your individual hearing and as early as possible, you and your attorney should discuss whether it will be beneficial for your case to hire an independent corroborating expert. Experts are very useful in complicated cases or in cases where the country conditions play a significant role. We usually advise using experts in almost every case.


Documents that Should Be Filed Before Attending Your Individual Hearing

Before attending your individual calendar hearing, there are required documents that you should file in preparation for your individual calendar hearing. It is important for you and your attorney to comply with the deadlines and requirements for filing these documents mentioned below. The required documents are as follows:

  • Applications, exhibits, motions. You and your attorney should file all applications for relief, proposed exhibits, and motions.
  • Witness list. If you have witnesses, you and your attorney must file a witness list.
  • Criminal history chart. If you submit documents relating to your criminal arrests, prosecutions, or convictions, you and your attorney are encouraged to use a criminal history chart and attach all important documentation, such as arrest and conviction records.
  • Legal Brief. Filing a legal brief (written laws, citations, and arguments) in support of your case is usually optional. It is good practice, and your attorney may offer to do so at additional cost. Sometimes, depending on the complexity of your case, the immigration judge may order the sides to file a brief. You and your attorney should discuss this thoroughly.


Recording of the Individual Hearing

When the individual calendar hearing begins, the immigration judge records the hearing except for off-the-record discussions. On the record, the immigration judge identifies and verifies:

  • The type of proceeding being conducted (i.e., removal proceeding);
  • Your name and alien registration number (“A number”);
  • The date, time, and place of the proceeding;
  • The presence of the parties; and
  • Your name, address, and telephone number.


At the Individual Hearing

At your individual calendar hearing, the immigration judge decides how the hearing is conducted. So, you and your attorney should be prepared to:

  • Make an opening statement;
  • Raise any objections to the other party’s (i.e., Department of Homeland Security) evidence;
  • Present witnesses and evidence on all issues;
  • Cross-examine opposing witnesses and object to testimony; and
  • Make a closing statement.

The government is represented at the hearings by DHS attorney also known as Assistant Chief Counsel (ACC). ACC is the attorney representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement in your case. The ACC’s role is to represent the government in proving that you should be removed from the United States. ACCs can also exercise a prosecutorial discretion agreeing to stipulate facts, narrow down issues, or grant the relief requested. For example, we at I.S. Law Firm have been able to get the ACCs agree to asylum approval even before the individual hearing in numerous cases.


Presenting Your Case

At the individual hearing, your case will be presented through questions and answers. Your attorney will ask you set of questions beginning with your background information and go through your entire case in the form of brief questions and brief answers. You and your attorney should thoroughly prepare for this session prior to your hearing. During your attorney’s questions, the judge may interrupt and ask you his or her questions. However, the government attorney (ACC) cannot interrupt your attorney’s questioning. Once you attorney is done with their questions, the government attorney (also known as DHS attorney or Assistant Chief Counsel “ACC”) will get their chance to cross-examine you by asking their questions.


Decision After the Individual Calendar Hearing

Usually, the immigration judge renders (states) their decision after the parties (you and your attorney and DHS) have presented their cases. The immigration judge may render an oral decision at the end of the individual calendar hearing, or the immigration judge may render an oral or written decision on a later date. If the immigration judge renders an oral decision, he or she gives the parties a signed summary order from the court.


Your Right to Appeal the Immigration Judge’s Decision

It is important to remember that you have the right to appeal the immigration judge’s decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). But you may also waive the right to appeal. At the end of the individual calendar hearing, the immigration judge informs the parties (you and your attorney and DHS) of the deadline for filing an appeal with the BIA, unless the right to appeal is waived.

Please note that the immigration judge may ask the BIA to review his or her decision. This process is known as “certifying” a case to the BIA. This happens very rarely. When the immigration judge certifies a case to the BIA, this process is separate from any appeal in the case. But if you decide to appeal the immigration judge’s decision to the BIA, you must file an appeal even if the immigration judge has certified the case to the BIA.

If you do not file your appeal to the BIA, the immigration judge’s decision becomes the final decision in your case, unless the case has been certified to the BIA. In other words, if the immigration judge has certified the case to the BIA, the immigration judge’s decision does not become the final decision in your case until the BIA completes reviewing the immigration judge’s decision.


Your Relief Request from Removal Proceedings is Granted

At your individual calendar hearing, if your application for relief from removal proceedings is granted by the immigration judge, you will be provided with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) post-order instructions. The DHS post-order instructions describe the steps that you should follow to obtain documentation of your immigration status from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

If you are granted asylum in immigration court, next you will have to schedule an InfoPass at your local USCIS office, where you will take the judge’s order and receive new I-94s.

It is important to hire the best immigration lawyer for your case as early as possible to avoid potential problems and to plan the best immigration strategy for you and your family. Attorneys at I.S. Law Firm have provided immigration help to many immigrants and their families. To schedule a consultation with our experienced asylum lawyers, please use this link: Schedule a Consultation – I.S. Law Firm, PLLC