by Dagmar R. Myslinska
Learn how to prepare yourself for your preliminary immigration hearing.
A master calendar hearing (“MCH”) is a short, preliminary hearing on immigration matters -- the usual start to efforts to remove an immigrant from the United States. You will meet with the Judge and the government attorney to figure out how your case will proceed. The Judge will schedule dates for your submission of written documents, and for your individual merits hearing (at which the substance of your applications or claims and/or defenses will be addressed in detail). If you have an attorney, he or she will answer most of the Judge’s questions.
During a MCH, the Court will not address any legal claims or defenses of your case. You will not be questioned about your case or immigration applications, and will not present any witnesses. The Judge will not make any rulings regarding legal issues in your case.
How to Prepare for Your MCH
You will first receive a Notice to Appear (“NTA”), which will specify the date and place of your MCH. Note that you must personally attend your MCH, even if your lawyer attends as well.
You may bring family members with you to the court. Make sure that they have legal immigration status. Otherwise, they may be arrested. It is not a good idea to bring children. Dress appropriately – in clean, neat, conservative clothes.
Arrive on time at your MCH. If you are absent -- or even late -- you might be ordered deported “in absentia” (due to your absence) or the Judge might deny your legal claims or defenses. Arriving early is a particularly wise idea because going through a security check point can take a while.
Try to find out ahead of time how your local Court operates. Bring important documents with you: your identification documents (passports, a driving license), your NTA (or another “hearing notice” that directed you to come to court), and any original documents that might be helpful at this preliminary stage (based on your lawyer’s suggestion). Also, bring a calendar, because the Judge will schedule deadlines in your case.
During your MCH, you will most likely be before the Judge for about five to 20 minutes only, although you might be in Court for several hours (including time to check in and wait). Plan accordingly.
What Will Happen During Your MCH
1. You will not be the only one in court at the time of your MCH. Other people will have their MCHs scheduled in the same time block as yours. When the Judge is ready for your case, he or she will call you by your Alien Registration Number (“A-Number”) and your name. You (and your lawyer, if you have one) will then come forward to speak to the Judge.
2. If you do not feel comfortable using English, do not force yourself. By attempting to communicate in a language you do not fully understand, you can only hurt yourself, in the likely event that you misunderstand some aspect of the court proceedings. Tell the Judge that you need an interpreter, and the Judge will provide one for free, usually by phone. If you cannot understand the interpreter or he or she is not translating correctly, alert the Judge, who will then look for another interpreter or reschedule the MCH for another date (when another interpreter is available). If an interpreter is provided, make sure to listen until he or she finishes translating, and then answer in your native language. You cannot bring your own interpreter.
3. A Judge will start your MCH by asking you for brief identification information – your name, address, your native language, and any other languages in which you are fluent. If you bring an attorney with you, you will also have an opportunity to officially present him or her as your lawyer (enter his or her “notice of appearance”).
4. The Judge will also review the charges listed against you in your NTA, and you will have to admit or deny each charge. Therefore, make sure to read your NTA very carefully before your MCH. Tell the Judge if anything in the NTA is incorrect. If you are applying for asylum, for example, the charges against you will typically include the following: the date when you entered the U.S., your nationality, whether you entered without being inspected at the border by immigration officials, whether you overstayed your visa, whether you entered using false travel documents, and so forth. Always deny any charges of fraud.
5. You will then be able to tell the Judge what forms of relief you are seeking (for example, asylum, withdrawal of removal, voluntary departure, cancellation of removal, and adjustment of status). If you are seeking asylum, make sure to also apply for (1) withholding of removal, and (2) protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
6. If you are applying for asylum, the Judge will also ask you to designate a country of removal. Generally, do not designate any country. The basis of your asylum application is that you are too afraid to go back to your home country, so never designate your home country. The Judge will then typically designate your home country as a country of removal, as a formality.
7. The Judge will set important dates for your case: (1) when to submit any pertinent applications (or their amendments or additional information); (2) another MCH if necessary; and (3) your individual merits hearing.
8. If you are applying for asylum and accept an “expedited removal” schedule, your individual merits hearing will be scheduled for within 180 days of when you first submitted your asylum application. Realize that this might not give you sufficient time to prepare a detailed asylum application and strong supporting documents. If you waive expedited removal, however, you will not be eligible for employment authorization while your application is going through the Immigration Court process. (If you are detained, you will be placed in an expedited removal schedule, and will not be allowed to waive it.)
9. Note that you must meet all of the deadlines that the Judge sets. Therefore, ask for extensions of deadlines and/or for “continuances” (rescheduled hearings) if you think that the time proposed by the Judge does not give you sufficient time to present your arguments well. Be ready to explain why you need additional time. Also, remember to request a continuance (another MCH) if you need time to find an attorney or if you had just found one and he or she needs time to meet with you.
10. At the conclusion of your MCH, you will be given another Notice, specifying the date for your next MCH or for your individual merits hearing.