There are now more than 1,000,000 people with cases pending before our nation's Immigration Courts. The culmination of this process is the Individual Hearing, where the Immigration Judge ("IJ") usually decides whether the applicant gets asylum, some other relief, or is ordered deported from our country. For asylum seekers, the Individual Hearing can be stressful and frightening. Here, we will discuss what to expect at that hearing. In prior posts, I discussed the Master Calendar Hearing, and how to prepare for the Individual Hearing.

Before we get to the substance of what happens at the Individual Hearing, I should mention that there are detained and non-detained hearings. A detained hearing is similar to a non-detained hearing in terms of the order of events, but sometimes the IJ and the alien are in different locations, and so cases are done by video (non-detained cases can also be done by video, but this is less common). These video hearings are more difficult to litigate, in terms of looking at documents, hearing each other talk, reading non-verbal cues, empathizing with the applicant, etc. Detained hearings are more difficult to prepare for, as it is difficult to gather evidence and get ready for your case when you are in jail.

Also, of course, different IJs have different styles (in Immigration Court, IJs decide the case - there are no juries). Some IJs ask a lot of questions; others ask no questions. Some are professional and respectful; others, not so much. It is helpful to know something about your IJ before the court hearing, so you can have an idea about what to expect. Statistics about asylum grant rates for many IJs can be found at TRAC Immigration.

Finally, as I discussed previously, many cases are won or lost before the trial even begins, and so how well the case is prepared will likely affect how the Individual Hearing proceeds.

As for the Individual Hearing itself, it begins when the IJ arrives in court. Everyone stands up for the Judge. Once everyone sits, the hearing usually begins with a conversation between the IJ and the lawyers (assuming the alien has a lawyer). During this discussion, the parties may try to narrow the issues that need to be discussed. Perhaps there are some areas of agreement, and it is helpful to know this in advance. Also, in some cases, the IJ will not need to hear testimony about the entire case - maybe the alien will only need to testify about part of her story.

At the beginning of the hearing, the IJ will ask what "relief" you are seeking. This can be asylum, Withholding of Removal, relief under the Torture Convention, Cancellation of Removal, Adjustment of Status, Voluntary Departure, and/or something else. The IJ will also mark the evidence and hear any objections. So if you submitted evidence, and the DHS attorney objects to that evidence, the Judge must decide whether or not to admit that evidence into the record, and how much "weight" to give to that piece of evidence (some evidence is considered more reliable than other evidence and hence receives more "weight" in terms of how much it influences the IJ's decision). At this time, the IJ will also ask whether there are any changes to the form I-589. You can update your form and make any corrections. Once the form is updated, the IJ will have you sign the form under penalty of perjury. You will also be "sworn in" under the penalty of perjury. This is basically a promise to tell the truth, and if it is found that you are not telling the truth, there are potential immigration and criminal consequences. If there is an interpreter in your case, the interpreter will also be sworn in.

If you have brought any witnesses to court, they will typically be asked to wait outside, so they cannot hear your testimony. That way, their testimony can be compared to your testimony. If there are inconsistencies between your witness and you, it could cause the IJ to think you are not telling the truth. For this reason, it is important that the witnesses are prepared in advance, and that you and your witnesses are on the same page. Keep in mind that different people may have different memories of the same event, and even if they are both telling the truth, there is still a risk that the two accounts will not be consistent. For this reason, it is important to go over each person's testimony prior to the court hearing.

Normally, the "respondent" (the alien who is the subject of the court proceeding) testifies first. This usually begins with your attorney asking questions (assuming again that you have an attorney). This is called the "direct examination," and usually involves you telling your whole story. Once the testimony is done, the DHS attorney asks questions. This is called "cross examination." During cross exam, the DHS attorney will often try to test your credibility. There are different ways to do this: Asking about prior inconsistencies in other applications (including any visa applications), at the Asylum Office, or during the credible fear interview; asking about testimony that seems implausible or inconsistent with country conditions; asking about documents or evidence that seems fraudulent. Hopefully, as you prepare your case, you will think about some possible avenues for cross examination and how you might respond. Afterwards, your attorney has an opportunity to ask some additional questions, based on what happened during cross examination. This is called "re-direct." The IJ can interject with questions at any time.

During your testimony (and for your witnesses' testimony), remember that if you do not understand a question, ask for clarification. Do not answer a question that you do not understand. If you do not know the answer to a question, or you do not remember the answer, just say that you don't know or you don't remember; don't guess. If you need a moment to collect your thoughts, ask for that. If you need a break, ask for that too. If you have an interpreter and there is a problem with the interpretation, don't be afraid to raise that issue as well (especially if you do not have a lawyer or your lawyer does not understand the language). Also, on cross exam, the DHS attorney often asks yes-or-no questions, and will sometimes insist on a yes-or-no answer (sometimes, the IJ will do this as well). If you cannot answer the question using a yes or no, try to explain that. If you feel that you have no choice but to answer yes or no, you should at least alert the IJ that you have more to say. On re-direct, you will have an opportunity to elaborate on your answer. Remember to always be polite and don't lose your cool.

After your testimony is finished, it will be your witnesses' turn. Sometimes, the IJ will accept a "proffer" of a witness's testimony (assuming both your lawyer and DHS agree). This means that the IJ will accept the testimony as recounted in the witness's letter (witnesses generally submit a statement in advance of trial), and that the witness will not actually need to testify. A proffer can be beneficial to your case (since it eliminates the possibility of inconsistent testimony), but it can also be a disadvantage (since the IJ will not hear the witness's testimony, which would presumably support your asylum claim).

After all the testimony is done, most--but not all--IJs allow the lawyers to make closing arguments. This is an opportunity for the lawyers to explain why they think you should win (or, for the DHS lawyer, lose) your case. Some IJs prefer to have a discussion at the end of testimony, to see whether there is agreement about resolution of the case.

Finally, the IJ will either make an oral decision, reserve decision for later, or inform the parties about the next step (in some cases, the IJ needs more information from the parties before she can make a decision). In the majority of of cases, the IJ issues an oral decision that same day.

If you do not like the IJ's decision, you can "reserve" appeal. If the DHS attorney does not like the IJ's decision, DHS can reserve appeal. If you (or DHS) reserve appeal, you have 30 days to file the appeal using form EOIR-26. The IJ should give you the deadline for the appeal. If you or DHS appeal, the appeal will be resolved by the Board of Immigration Appeals. But that is a story for another day.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: