Navigating the complex world of the immigration court system can be overwhelming, but understanding its structure and processes can help demystify it for you. The immigration court system is the entity through which immigration judges conduct removal proceedings and adjudicate asylum claims for immigrants, among other responsibilities. Operated by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) under the power of the Attorney General, it plays a crucial role in US immigration matters.

As you explore the immigration court system, you’ll discover that it comprises 63 courts spread across the country, both near and far from the border. These courts are responsible for the judicial review of the cases of noncitizens that the federal government seeks to remove from the country. With a growing backlog of cases, the immigration court system is constantly adapting and evolving in response to new policies and an ever-changing political landscape.

In order to fully comprehend the intricacies of the United States immigration system, it’s essential to recognize the principles on which it is based: the reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills valuable to the US economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity. As you delve deeper into this topic, you will gain a clearer understanding of how US immigration law is designed and functions, and how the court system plays a critical role in implementing and enforcing these principles.

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Overview of the Immigration Court System

Role of the Immigration Court

The Immigration Court System is the entity responsible for conducting removal proceedings and adjudicating asylum claims for immigrants, among other responsibilities. It is operated by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), under the power of the Attorney General. The underlying principles in U.S. immigration law are family reunification, admitting immigrants with valuable skills, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity.

Key Players

In the Immigration Court System, there are a few crucial individuals involved in shaping the outcome of a case. Here are some key players:

  • Immigration Judges: They preside over court hearings, make judgments on asylum claims, and issue decisions on removal proceedings. Their decisions can be appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).
  • Attorneys: Both immigrants and the government are represented by attorneys in the court proceedings. Immigrants may have private or pro bono attorneys, while the government is represented by attorneys from the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Interpreters: As immigration court proceedings often involve individuals with limited English proficiency, interpreters are essential in ensuring that all parties understand the proceedings and can effectively communicate.

In order to ensure a smooth and fair process, all parties involved in immigration court proceedings must adhere to the EOIR Immigration Court Practice Manual, which contains detailed instructions and guidance on court policies and procedures. This is particularly important for attorneys, as failure to comply with the practice manual can have serious consequences for their clients’ cases.

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Immigration Court Process

Initiation of Removal Proceedings

The immigration court process begins with the initiation of removal proceedings. You’ll receive a Notice to Appear (NTA) from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which outlines the charges against you and the reasons for initiating removal. Ensure you review the NTA carefully and understand the charges against you. It’s crucial to attend all scheduled hearings and to seek legal representation if possible, as the immigration court process can be complex and challenging to navigate.

Master Calendar Hearings

After receiving the NTA, your first court appearance will be the Master Calendar Hearing. During this hearing, you’ll have the opportunity to review the charges against you, confirm your contact information, and inform the judge of your legal representation status. If you don’t have an attorney, the judge may provide you with a list of pro bono legal service providers. Remember, it’s important to attend this hearing, even if you don’t have an attorney yet, as failure to appear can lead to deportation in absentia.

Individual Merits Hearings

The next step in the immigration court process is the Individual Merits Hearing, where the judge will hear your case and decide whether to grant relief from removal or not. During this hearing, you’ll present evidence and testimonies supporting your case, and the DHS will present their side as well. The judge will then make a decision on whether you’re eligible for relief from removal, which can include asylum, cancellation of removal, or adjustment of status. It’s critical to be well-prepared for this hearing, as the judge’s decision can significantly impact your future in the United States.

In summary, navigating the immigration court process can be challenging, but understanding each step and having sound legal representation can increase your chances of success. Ensure you attend all hearings, stay informed about your case, and present a strong case during the Individual Merits Hearing.

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Types of Relief

The immigration court system in the United States, managed by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), allows for various forms of relief from removal proceedings1. This section will discuss three primary types of relief available to qualified individuals, covered under the headings Asylum, Cancellation of Removal, and Adjustment of Status.


If you fear persecution in your home country due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion, you may be eligible for asylum1. To qualify, you must establish that you have a well-founded fear of persecution and are unable or unwilling to return to your home country. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or an immigration judge will assess your eligibility during the removal proceedings.

Cancellation of Removal

Cancellation of removal is another form of relief that can be granted by an immigration judge during removal proceedings1. There are specific requirements you must meet to be eligible for cancellation of removal depending on your immigration status:

  • Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR): If you are an LPR, you must have been a lawful permanent resident for at least five years, have continuously resided in the U.S. for a minimum of seven years after being legally admitted, and have not been convicted of an aggravated felony.
  • Non-LPRs: If you are not an LPR, you must have been continuously physically present in the U.S. for at least ten years, have good moral character, and demonstrate that your removal would cause exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to a U.S. citizen or LPR spouse, parent, or child.

Adjustment of Status

Adjustment of status is a process that allows you, as an immigrant, to apply for lawful permanent resident status in the United States1. You can apply for adjustment of status during the removal proceedings if you are eligible based on a family or employment-based petition, humanitarian programs, or special immigrant categories. Keep in mind that eligibility requirements and application procedures vary depending on the specific category under which you are applying.

By understanding the various types of relief available and their respective eligibility criteria, you can better navigate the immigration court system and seek the most appropriate form of relief for your situation.


  1. Immigration Benefits in EOIR Removal Proceedings 2 3 4

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Appeals Process

Board of Immigration Appeals

The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) is the highest administrative body responsible for interpreting and applying immigration laws. The BIA has 23 Appellate Immigration Judges, which include a Chief Appellate Immigration Judge and one or two Deputy Chief Appellate Immigration Judges. They are located at the EOIR headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia.

If you disagree with an immigration judge’s decision, you can appeal to the BIA. To do so, you must file a Notice of Appeal within 30 days of the immigration judge’s ruling. The BIA will then review the record of your case, including any legal briefs submitted by you or your attorney, and the government’s arguments. After considering the facts and legal issues, the BIA will make a decision that may affirm, reverse, or remand the case back to the immigration judge for further proceedings.

Federal Courts

In some cases, you may seek a judicial review of your case by petitioning one of the 13 U.S. Courts of Appeal across the country. This process is governed by Section 242 of the Immigration & Nationality Act (INA). Keep in mind that a petition for review must be filed within 30 days of the date of the final order.

The federal courts have limited jurisdiction over immigration cases, meaning they cannot just take on any immigration case. They can only review claims of violations of constitutional rights or claims that challenge the interpretation of immigration laws. In these situations, the appellate court will review the case and make a decision, either affirming the decision of the BIA or remanding the case for further proceedings.

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Challenges and Criticisms

Backlog of Cases

The U.S. immigration court system faces a significant backlog of cases, which creates delays and increased uncertainty for those involved. The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated this issue, but the root cause lies in long-standing structural problems. A lack of resources, such as immigration judges and support staff, often results in prolonged wait times for hearings and decisions in your case.

Furthermore, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policies, including the absence of a statute of limitations for civil immigration offenses, contribute to the ever-growing backlog of cases. It is essential for you to be aware of these challenges when navigating the immigration court system.

Lack of Representation

Another prevalent issue impacting the immigration court system is the lack of legal representation for many individuals facing deportation. Unlike in criminal court proceedings, where you have a right to an attorney if you cannot afford one, there is no such guarantee in immigration court. Consequently, many immigrants must navigate the complex and overwhelming legal process without a lawyer’s assistance.

Your ability to secure representation can significantly influence the outcome of your case, and those without representation tend to have less favorable results. Therefore, understanding the challenges of the immigration court system and knowing your options for securing legal assistance can be crucial for your case’s success.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the different stages of immigration court proceedings?

The immigration court process generally consists of several stages: a master calendar hearing, the filing of applications for relief, and individual or merits hearings. During the master calendar hearing, you’ll discuss your case with the judge and receive an overview of future proceedings. The next stage involves filing applications for relief from removal (such as asylum or cancellation of removal). Lastly, an individual or merits hearing is held to present evidence and decide on the outcome of your case.

How can one check the status of an immigration court case?

To check the status of your immigration court case, you can call the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) hotline at 1-800-898-7180. You will need your Alien Registration Number (A-Number) to access your case information. Additionally, for certain cases, you can use the Immigration Court Online Resource provided by the United States Department of Justice.

What occurs during an individual hearing in immigration court?

During an individual hearing, the immigration judge will consider evidence and testimonies presented by both the respondent (you) and the government. You will have the opportunity to present your case, call witnesses, and submit evidence supporting your eligibility for relief from removal. The government attorney will also present evidence against granting relief. After considering all the evidence, the judge will issue a decision.

How many immigration courts and judges are there in the U.S.?

The immigration court system in the United States is overseen by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). Currently, there are over 60 immigration courts across the country, with more than 400 immigration judges. Keep in mind that the number of courts and judges may change over time based on the needs and resources of the system.

What factors can influence the duration of an immigration court hearing?

Several factors can influence the duration of an immigration court hearing, including the complexity of your case, court backlog, availability of judges and attorneys, and the timeliness of submitted documents and evidence. Some cases may conclude in a few months, while others can take years to resolve. It’s essential to be prepared and stay informed throughout the entire process.

What should one expect during their first immigration court appearance?

During your first immigration court appearance, known as a master calendar hearing, you will meet with the immigration judge and a government attorney. The judge will explain your rights, outline the allegations against you, and identify the charges for which you may be removed. At this initial hearing, you’ll also have the opportunity to request any forms of relief (such as asylum or cancellation of removal) that you believe you’re eligible for. Ensure you understand the requirements and deadlines for filing any applications before the hearing concludes.

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