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How Long Do Immigration Court Cases Take?


“My sister was picked up by immigration yesterday. They have taken her to the Adelanto Detention Center. When I talked to friends, they told me that her case could take a long time. Why? Her husband is a U.S. citizen. So are their two kids.“

(Submitted by Ingrid S., Victorville, CA)


It is not easy to predict how long your sister’s immigration court case will take. It could be completed in just a few months. It could last several years. There are many reasons why her case may go fast, or why it may go slow.

I’ll try to briefly explain.

I’ll start with a few basic points. Your sister’s case involves many issues. Why was she picked up? Was she ever arrested before? Is she a permanent resident or does she lack immigration papers? If she has no legal documents to live here, have you or anyone else ever filed a petition for her to get a green card? When was she married?

Those are just a few basic questions.

Let me move on to some more practical concerns about deportation defense.

First, be aware there are too many deportation cases, too few judges.

Because immigration courts are overcrowded, it is tempting for judges to want to push cases through the system quickly.

But moving rapidly is not always in the best interests of immigrants who will be deported if they lose. Sometimes cases are complicated and developing evidence to win takes a lot of time.

There are some situations, of course, where moving through the system at a fast pace will not hurt immigrant defendants. In my experience, there are fewer cases to speed up than there are cases where you need more time.

The time between hearings can be several months. Since there are many cases, most courts cannot just set the next hearing in a couple of weeks. Even for courts which are not overloaded, regular hearings are normally set 2-3 months in advance.

This means the more hearings in a case, the longer the case will take to finish.

If your sister’s case is complex, with several tough issues, there will be extra hearings.

If she goes to court, and something new has taken place, this could slow things down. For instance, if a new federal court ruling has been issued since your previous hearing, both her lawyer and the government’s attorney often need time to figure out how it affects her case.

(At present, the influx of Central American youth refugees has added several hundred thousand more cases to the immigration court system. Due to strict legal requirements for asylum claims, this has caused many existing cases to be rescheduled 1-2 years in the future.)

Further, certain requirements can take lengthy periods of time to comply. For instance, the government always wants to make sure it spots all immigrants who are dangerous threats to society.

Thus, everyone placed in deportation proceedings has to go through a background check.

At times, the information from government computers is wrong. Such discrepancies are usually not simple to clarify. Hearings to sort through the mistakes can delay the case several months.

There are many other reasons why your sister’s case could be extended. All of them mean her case will not move as fast as you might want.

In short, for a variety of reasons, the majority of immigration court cases are complicated.  As a result, the assistance of deportation lawyers are essential in complex cases.

Looking into such help should not be minimized.

Here are a few more reasons what could occur.

Maybe your sister will need more time to get all her supporting documents translated into English or certified by the government in her home country.

Perhaps her lawyer became sick for several weeks and could not prepare all her paperwork by the court’s deadlines.

Or something has changed in her life or family situation, and this change means the defense she was hoping to use has changed.

Then there’s her trial. This is called an Individual Hearing by some courts and a Merits Hearing by other courts.

Normally, the immigration judge will schedule the trial for four hours. But it is not unusual in difficult cases for trials to take more time. If this happens, the next hearing may not occur for over six months.

The courts, as I noted, are overcrowded. It is hard for judges to find a four-hour block of time open for hearings. When trials take longer, and run into a second or third day of testimony, this creates an even bigger logjam of cases. This leads to longer delays for all other cases.

Moreover, the Merits Hearing, even after the Judge’s decision, may not be the end of your sister’s case. But that is a different issue.

Before closing, I want to emphasize that most immigration court hearings are too hard, and too much is at risk, for immigrants to try to defend themselves.

In fact, studies have shown that 50% more immigrants win their deportation defense cases when they hire a lawyer, instead of going to court alone.

So the long answer to your question is that, yes, her case could take a long, long time.

If you have an ongoing case right now, and you have immediate case-specific questions, you may want to visit our Deportation And Removal Defense Attorney Services page for more information.

Or you might want to schedule a 1-On-1 Personalized Strategy And Planning Session to discuss the ins and outs of your case in depth.