What to Expect at Trial in Immigration Court

Preparing for trial image

How do you prepare an opening statement for a trial in immigration court? Well, you don’t! Legal practitioners in other fields often approach immigration trial preparation as they would for other types of trials. After all, in most settings, a trial usually flows as such—preliminary issues, opening statement, testimony (direct, cross, re-direct, etc.) of multiple witnesses, closing arguments, right? Let’s take a personal injury case or custody case, for example. I imagine that you would expect to be in court for about two days to two weeks, or even longer, depending on the complexity of the case. As I recall from private practice, the parties inform the judge of how long they expect the trial to last, and the judge blocks off an (hopefully) appropriate amount of time for the trial.

Do not expect the same in immigration court.

Immigration judges are under an immense amount of stress dealing with a backlog of cases. Trials for non-detained cases in Arlington and Baltimore immigration courts are currently being scheduled for 2021 to 2023. Of course, detained cases move much more quickly, given that the respondents are being held at government expense, and so are “rush” cases. Detained cases are expected to be completed within a few months. This means that there is even more pressure on judges to get through those cases quickly.

One of our judges schedules detained individual hearings (trials in immigration court) for one to one-and-a-half hour time blocks. Yes, you read that correctly. One hour. The judge expects to have two individual hearings in one morning. Recently, the judge scheduled an individual hearing for 8.30 a.m., and another one at 10 a.m. The 8.30 a.m. trial was for a complex asylum case that a wonderful pro bono team had taken on. In an hour and a half, this team had to persuade the judge that if their client were removed to his home country, that client would be persecuted on account of a protected ground, and the home country’s government would be unable or unwilling to protect their client.

So, again, how do you prepare an opening statement when you only have an hour and a half for the entire trial? You do not. There is no time for that. The judge does not have time to listen to opening statements. Honestly, I believe that the judge walks into the courtroom already having decided one way or the other about the case based on the pre-trial filings, and only wants to hear from the respondent to support the judge’s pre-made decision. The respondent’s testimony will support or alter the judge’s pre-made decision. 

So, instead of preparing an opening statement, prepare the best evidentiary filing possible to support your client’s claim for relief, and prepare the heck out of your client for his or her testimony. Those are two key pieces of preparation that will help ensure that, despite the limited time that you have in the courtroom, you are able to effectively advocate for your client.