Your Rights as an Unrepresented Immigrant in Removal Proceedings

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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You have lived here for years and feel like an American citizen. You work hard for your family and have no criminal record. Then all of a sudden, you receive a typed notice demanding your presence at an immigration hearing. What should you do? Although it is easier said than done, do not panic. You have options and rights during removal proceedings that include: filing a motion to terminate, requesting a continuance, requesting an interpreter, and visiting with a pro bono attorney.

A removal proceeding is a hearing wherein the U.S. government tries to remove you from the country involuntarily. Many people receive hearing notices to appear before judges even after they have received their green cards, which is sometimes merely a clerical error. If you believe you received your notice in error, return to the attorney who helped you get your green card so that he or she can file a motion to terminate the proceedings.

If you have never been placed in removal proceedings before, try to think how you got there. Perhaps there was some clerical error involving your name, alias, or alien registration number? Maybe you pled to so me misdemeanor with long-term immigration consequences that you did not understand. Whatever the reason, it is important to be realistic about the time it will take to get through removal proceedings and to formulate a plan to get through them successfully.

Even people placed in removal proceedings accidentally, through the fault of the government, can remain in proceedings for many years. During that time, they are forbidden to travel except with the advance permission of the government. They also skip work to sit through long status hearings in immigration court. Remember that a hearing in immigration court is more important than showing up for jury duty. If you do not appear at the scheduled date and time, the immigration judge can remove you in your absence. This is known as an in absencia removal order. It will also render you ineligible for any future forms of relief from removal. Essentially, missing any hearing during the removal proceedings can result in a waiver of your rights and remedies during the process.

Although appearing for the first time alone in immigration court is frightening, you will have plenty of time to figure out how the system works and to decide if you need to get a lawyer. With regard to time, aliens who appear with attorneys in court are given priority over those representing themselves. If you get there ahead of time, check in with the clerk who sits at the side of the bench and make him or her aware of your presence. Once proceedings have begun, some judges do not like people approaching the bench to check in. Watch what other people are doing and how the judge reacts.

As an unrepresented client, waiting does have some advantages. First, it gives you an opportunity to notice how the immigration judge conducts him or herself during proceedings. It can get really boring, but after the first hour of listening, you can pick up what flatters or annoys your future arbiter. Also watch the lawyers at the table. If you see a few that handle themselves competently and seem trustworthy, don’t be afraid to follow them out of court and ask for a business card. If it’s your first time appearing in court, chances are you are not alone.

Immigration proceedings are organized by the need for interpreters and what stage of the process you are in. If you do not understand what is happening because of a language barrier, request an interpreter so that you can understand the questions you are asked before you give any answers. Because of the grouping, you will also notice nearly all of the clients around you speak the same language and are present to plead to a Notice To Appear (NTA). Pleading to an NTA involves admitting or denying a series of factual allegations, including the date and place of your initial entrance to the United States and your country of origin. Depending on the circumstances, the NTA will also contain a charge, alleging you are inadmissible or removable under a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Before you enter a plea or make any answers to these questions, you can consult with an immigration attorney about your responses. At this hearing, judges will often point out a pro bono attorney who is willing to represent you at no cost for the purposes of this hearing alone. This attorney will raise his or her hand and you can then meet him or her in another designated room.

If you do not wish to consult with the pro bono attorney, request a continuance. A continuance is where you ask the court for more time. You make this request by approaching the table yourself when the clerk calls your name and telling the judge you need more time to find a lawyer. The judge will then provide you with another list of pro bono immigration attorneys you can consult at a later date. Do not plead to the NTA if you do not know how to enter your plea or the effect of your plea. In addition to the facts and charge, judges also request that you designate any and all forms of relief you wish to submit. You will not know what forms of relief you qualify for until you consult with a lawyer.

The important thing to remember is that you have a right to be represented during immigration proceedings, just as the government is being represented by different trial attorneys of the Department of Homeland Security. Be aware that immigration proceedings are a lengthy, often complicated process that is often rife with fraud. Make sure you meet with an actual attorney and not a notary or “notario.” The laws do not provide free representation for immigration proceedings, but you are entitled to representation by a licensed attorney.

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