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Be prepared: Immigration court is not like criminal court

As a foreign national in the United States, you may already know that your status here is not as secure as you may like it to be. Whether you entered the country without going through the immigration process or you followed the legal procedures to obtain a visa, there is always some uncertainty, especially in the current political climate.

If you are ever facing criminal charges or accusations of violating immigration law, you may trust the justice system in this country. What you may not understand is that immigration laws are quite different from those laws that govern American citizens, and immigration court is not the same as district courts where federal cases are heard.

Immigration court is a different world

You may hope that you have the same rights as U.S. citizens enjoy when it comes to the justice system. A citizen who faces criminal charges has the right to an attorney, a speedy trial and other things that give him or her a fair chance at a just resolution. However, in immigration courts, you may not be so fortunate. Some important things to keep in mind if you ever face charges in a Pennsylvania immigration court include the following:

  • The judges in immigration court are not part of the judicial branch of government, but they receive appointments from those who hold political offices.
  • Because they belong to the executive branch of the government, they may hold the same political views on immigration that the current president holds.
  • Immigration judges often hear twice as many cases as a judge in a federal district court.
  • This overload of cases results in long waits, often in detention, for people like you who are waiting for their days in court.
  • While an immigration trial proceeds like a criminal trial, you do not enjoy the same protections under the constitution as someone in federal court, such as the right to a court-appointed attorney.
  • About 70% of immigration trials end in deportation.

If an immigration court convicts you and sentences you to deportation, you may file an appeal. Only a small number of immigrants do so, and most of those cases end with the panel confirming the court's decision without further explanation. Additionally, because of the backlog of cases, it is common for those who file appeals to complete the deportation process before their hearing date arrives. Once the court orders your deportation, even a pending appeal does not protect you from removal.

Even though immigration court does not provide you with an attorney, you have the right to obtain your own legal counsel. It is wise to do so and to find an attorney who has experience in the very different and complex nature of immigration laws.

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