Immigration Court Overview

San Francisco is home to fifteen Immigration Courts, which are organized under the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

These fifteen courts hear a multitude of immigration cases, including those related to Adjustment of Status through family-based petitions, Cancellation of Removal, and claims of asylum. An individual may also appear before the Immigration Court due to unlawful presence in the United States, charges of marriage fraud or a sham marriage, apprehension for unauthorized employment, and removal from the United States of lawful permanent residents who have committed crimes.

The "defendant" in an Immigration Court hearing is known as the Respondent. The U.S. government is represented by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS Counsel), and the Respondent either represents him/herself or has representation from an immigration attorney. An Immigration Judge oversees the hearings and makes decisions about the case.

There are two types of hearings: Master Hearings and Individual/Merits Hearings. The purpose of a Master Hearing is to determine what kind of immigration relief the Respondent wishes to pursue, and Individual Hearings are used to determine if the Respondent qualifies for that relief. If the Immigration Judge decides that a Respondent qualifies for relief, one or more Individual Hearings will be scheduled in the coming months. For better or for worse, a full Immigration Court case can take a year or even more to resolve, meaning that the Respondent is allowed to remain in the United States.

Individual Hearings can include witness testimony, relevant documents, and legal briefs filed by both sides regarding legal issues. Because of the complexity of the immigration laws and the unique facts of each case, there are often new legal issues for the two sides to debate before the Immigration Judge.

If, at the end of proceedings, the Court rules against the Respondent, s/he is usually given 30 days to depart the United States. On some occasions the Respondent may be granted Voluntary Departure and not forced to leave the country for up to 120 days. This gives the Respondent time to get personal affairs in order prior to departing the country. If a Respondent fails to leave the United States by the date of the expiration of Voluntary Departure, the Immigration Judge's order automatically becomes an Order of Deportation.

After any decision by the Court, both sides are given the opportunity to appeal the decision within 30 days. Thus, the Respondent can appeal her case to the Board of Immigration Appeals if her case is denied, but it also means that DHS Counsel can ask for a review if she wins.