The key to winning an asylum case in Immigration Court is preparation. I'd venture that the majority of asylum cases are won or lost before the applicant arrives in court for the final hearing. If the case and the applicant are well prepared, the chances for success are greatly improved. If the case and the applicant are not well prepared, the likelihood of winning is much reduced. So how do you prepare for an asylum hearing in Immigration Court?

First, you have to determine whether you are eligible for any relief. If you fear return to your country on account of your race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group, you may be eligible for asylum or Withholding of Removal. If you fear torture, you could be eligible for relief under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Besides these types of humanitarian protection, there are a number of other applications that might help you avoid deportation: Cancellation of Removal, adjustment of status based on a family relationship or a job, a T or U visa for certain victims of crimes, the semi-mythical S visa for certain cooperating witnesses, the Special Immigrant Juvenile visa, to name the most common. How do you know what relief you might be eligible for? Your best bet is to talk to a lawyer, but you can also do your own research.

Assuming you qualify for relief, you normally have to inform the Immigration Judge and submit all necessary forms at the Master Calendar Hearing ("MCH"). In many cases, if you do not submit all applications for relief in advance of the Individual Hearing, you forfeit those opportunities for relief. Be aware that some applications for relief require a fee (asylum does not require a fee), and so make sure to pay the fee well in advance of the Individual Hearing.

As the Individual Hearing approaches, you need to file all the necessary documents with the Immigration Court. This includes all evidence, a witness list, and a legal brief. The documents must be filed on time. The default rule (from the Immigration Court Practice Manual) is that evidence should be filed at least 15 days prior to the Individual Hearing, but some Judges have their own rules and require documents earlier than that (the Judge should inform you about this at the MCH). One copy of the evidence goes to the Court and one copy goes to the local Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (the prosecutor).

The evidence normally consists of the I-589 asylum form (and/or forms for any other applications for relief), an affidavit, and supporting documents. Any documents not in English must be properly translated. You can read more about what evidence is helpful here.

Courts also require a witness list, which is a list of people who will come to Court to provide testimony in your case. Anyone who plans to appear as a witness must provide a letter indicating what they know about your situation. There are benefits and risks to any witness, and you need to think carefully about whether a particular witness will be helpful for your case (and of course, if you have a lawyer, the lawyer should explore this with you). All witnesses need to be prepared for their testimony, just as the applicant herself needs to be prepared (see below).

Also, for most cases, it is a good idea to submit a brief detailing the legal theory of the case. This is especially important where the case involves a particular social group or PSG (the BIA requires applicants to specifically articulate any PSG). Even in cases where PSG is not an issue, it is important to explain the legal posture of the case and any issues that may be relevant (one year filing bar, nexus, persecutor bar, firm resettlement, criminal issues, etc.).

In addition, if your case was referred to Court by the Asylum Office, you should think about why. Are there inconsistencies or errors that need to be addressed? Maybe this requires a new affidavit or additional evidence. Did you fail to show that you suffered past persecution or that you have a well-founded fear of future persecution? Maybe you need more evidence or a stronger legal argument. While the Immigration Judge reviews the case de novo (meaning, the IJ makes her own decision), remember that the Asylum Officer's notes can be admitted to impeach your credibility. As you prepare for Court, you should think about what was said and submitted at the Asylum Interview, and determine whether that requires any additional evidence or testimony.

Before the Individual Hearing, make sure you and any of your dependents have completed their biometrics (fingerprints) appointment. If your case has been referred from the Asylum Office, this will already have been done (assuming you showed up for your biometrics appointment prior to your asylum interview). If not, you can request a biometrics appointment. This is important, and if you forget to do it (which is easy), it could result in the case being delayed or denied.

As the Court date approaches, it is important to practice for the hearing. How do you want to present your case? What questions might be asked of you? What are the weak points in the case and how will you discuss those? It is very important to think about these issues in advance. Judges and Trial Attorneys are good at finding the weaknesses in a case and asking about them, and failure to prepare ahead of time may result in the case being denied. In our office, we do two practice sessions with the client - the first about a week before the trial and the second a day or two before (this practice session is an much for the attorney's benefit as the client's).

Finally, prior to the hearing, it is a good idea to talk to the DHS Attorney (normally, your lawyer does this). It is not always easy to reach these attorneys, and they often do not return calls. However, at the beginning of the hearing, it is common for the Judge to ask whether the parties have talked, and so it is helpful to at least have tried to communicate with the government lawyer. Assuming you can talk to the lawyer in advance, you can potentially narrow the issues and have a better sense of what to expect at the hearing.

So that's about it for preparation. In a future post, I will discuss what happens at the Individual Hearing.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: