Horror Story About Seven-Minute Immigration Hearings Isn’t the Whole Story

Breaking pointThe Washington Post‘s recent article, “In a crowded immigration court, seven minutes to decide a family‚Äôs future,” exposes one of the many weaknesses of the U.S. immigration system: Undocumented and other immigrants caught violating the immigration laws receive no free legal representation (unless a sympathetic attorney steps in pro bono), have little idea of what their legal rights might be, and enter a system where little individual attention is possible before they’re, in many cases, escorted away.

The Immigration Judge profiled in the article, Lawrence Burman of Virginia, had 26 cases on his morning hearing docket, or an average of seven minutes in which to make a decision on each case.

The results of such a system can be tragic. Let’s say, for example, that the person arrives at one of these hearings with no attorney, doesn’t realize that the bad experiences he fled from in his own country amount to persecution that might qualify him for asylum, and thus fails to convey this to the judge or attorney (assuming he’s even lucky enough to find an attorney serving pro bono and able to understand the person’s language).

If the judge has no more than seven minutes to talk with such a person — and if the person misguidedly fills up the time assuring the judge that he loves this country and works hard and would do well if allowed to stay (common errors, which usually get the immigrant nowhere) — it could be all to easy for the judge to order the person to depart the United States.

But let’s make one thing about the system clear: It is possible for immigrants facing deportation to have a full, private hearing before an immigration judge that lasts more than seven minutes. It’s a matter of knowing the procedural steps and what to ask for. What the article seems to have been describing was merely step one, the so-called “master calendar” hearing.

At a master calendar hearing, many people arrive all at once, and the judge decides which of them seem to have enough of a legal case for staying in the U.S. to be worth calendaring for a full, “merits” hearing. The merits hearing can last for hours, and be continued to future dates, with opportunities for testimony by the noncitizen as well as witnesses, introduction of documents and exhibits, and so on.

Many people won’t have any case for staying in the U.S. at all — they are undocumented, and have no immediate family connections, no grounds upon which to request asylum or “cancellation of removal,” and no other plausible defense to deportation.

But many will have some legal basis upon which to request either the long-term right to stay in the U.S., or at least “prosecutorial discretion” (meaning that the U.S. government agrees that the person is a low enforcement priority because of U.S. family ties and other equities, and will leave him or her alone for the moment). And they may not even know it. The judge will try to elicit such information, but as the article shows, has little time in which to do so.

The more that people called into removal proceedings can do to research their rights and find an attorney in advance, the lower the chance that their seven minutes will be wasted and lead to a hasty order of deportation.