Immigration Court Primer

The Immigration Court is an administrative court within the Department of Justice (DOJ) responsible for adjudicating immigration cases in the United States. Immigration judges preside over the courts and resolve such questions as:

  • whether an individual should be allowed to remain in the U.S. (i.e., whether he or she is "admissible" or "removable") and, in some cases, whether he or she is a U.S. citizen;
  • whether an individual's application for relief from deportation (removal), such as for asylum, or an application for an immigration benefit, such as for a green card, should be granted;
  • whether a detained individual should be allowed to post bond, or the bond amount should be changed.

Cases generally involve non-citizens who have been charged by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with being in violation of immigration law. Where DHS does not have the authority to administratively deport the individual, the agency brings the matter to the Immigration Court and asks an immigration judge to issue a removal order authorizing DHS to deport that individual from the country.

There are over 60 immigration courts, and each of these often hears cases at several locations throughout the United States. Hearings also may be held by video (and sometimes telephonic) conferencing where the judge and the immigrant are located in different places.

Typically, the U.S. government is represented in court hearings by a DHS attorney. Unlike criminal courts, immigrants—even unaccompanied children—have no legal right to an attorney if they cannot afford to hire one. As a result, many must appear without any representation to assist them. Cases generally begin when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials or Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents issue a "Notice to Appear" (NTA) to an individual, and then file the NTA with the Immigration Court. [See section below on tracking new NTAs.]

Because these are administrative courts, there are many differences between the operation of these courts and regular federal courts where judges hold lifetime appointments to help ensure their independence. Immigration judges are attorneys appointed by the Attorney General (AG). Immigration judges conduct formal court proceedings to determine whether an alien should be allowed to enter or remain in the U.S., in considering bond amounts in certain situations, and in considering various forms of relief from removal.

Their degree of independence, however, in conducting hearings and rendering rulings is somewhat restricted. Currently there is an ongoing controversy over the imposition of completion quotas on immigration judges, as well as new restrictions imposed on the level of independence they can exercise. At the discretion of the Attorney General (AG), cases assigned to one judge can be withdrawn and assigned to another, and any decision in a case can be overturned if the AG disagrees with the judge's ruling.

Appeals of immigration judge decisions can be made to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). Some BIA decisions can be appealed by immigrants further to the federal courts. Both the Immigrant Court and the BIA are part of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) within the DOJ.

Tracking New NTAs

A new deportation matter is initiated when DHS issues a Notice to Appear (NTA) to an immigrant. In tracking how many new cases have been initiated, TRAC bases its statistics on a count of the new NTA records that have been added to the Court's database during the past month.

TRAC obtains these database records through making monthly Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to EOIR for detailed anonymized information from these case-by- case court files. TRAC analyzes this data and publishes both reports and online tools to allow the public to examine who is being brought before the Court, when and where proceedings occur, how proceedings are conducted, and what ultimately the immigration judge's decision is in each case.

When DHS schedules an Immigration Court hearing to include on the NTA using the Court's interactive scheduling system, then the NTA is immediately added to the Court's database. When this system is not used, the NTA is added to the Court's database once it is filed by DHS with the Court and then recorded by Court personnel. Here there can be a delay between when these NTAs are issued and when they reach and are recorded by the Court.

There are two different approaches to counting how many new Court cases have been initiated by DHS. The first method TRAC uses in deriving its statistics is to count how many new NTAs have been added to the Court's database each month. Adding these counts across months in a fiscal year provides a cumulative count of the new cases for that fiscal year. This is the count that is used in reporting new fillings in Quick Facts for the current fiscal year.

When TRAC's tools provide individual counts for the entire time series of case initiations, year-by-year, a slightly different approach is used. Here, TRAC takes the new NTAs that appear each month and then distributes them according to the actual date on the NTA. Thus, the count for the current fiscal year will only include those new NTAs which were also dated during the current fiscal year. Those with earlier dates will be added to each of the respective earlier periods according to their actual NTA dates.

This means that when only the current fiscal year is the focus, the Quick Facts counts will appear larger than those in TRAC's other tools which present year-by-year counts. This is because the Quick Facts count just considers when the case first showed up in the Court's database and does not restrict this count to only those NTAs which also have a current fiscal year NTA date.