President-elect Donald Trump has softened his stance on immigration. During his campaign, he vowed to deport all the 11 million undocumented immigrants. In a recent interview however, he said that he would prioritize the removal of the 2 to 3 million with criminal records.
Focusing on undocumented immigrants with criminal records has also been the thrust of outgoing president Barack Obama. In 2015, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said that the focus of the agency’s limited resources was in combating threats to national security, public safety and border security rather than expending funding on individuals charged with minor crimes like traffic violations.
Back in 2011, the government deported a record-high of 396,906 individuals, 90% of those removed were criminals and repeat immigration law offenders. Fast forward to fiscal year 2015 and total deportations declined to 235,415, according to a report dated December 22, 2015 from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As of July 2016, ICE has completed 168,781 deportations, a slight decline from the same point in 2015.
While this trend and Trump’s latest pronouncements may ease the worries of some people, it must be noted that those who are without lawful immigration status may still be placed under removal proceedings. It is therefore important for them to know what to do when facing deportation. An increase in sweeps or workplace raids may occur in the coming months.
Contrary to popular belief, unless subject to expedited removal an alien is generally entitled to court proceedings before being removed. Removal proceedings typically start with the service of a notice to appear (NTA) upon the alien.
The NTA specifies, among other things, the alleged immigration violation, the charge against the alien and the specific provision/s of the law alleged to have been violated, and the time and place of the hearing. An NTA may be served in person or by mail. As non-citizens are required to notify the USCIS of any change of address within 10 days of the change, in many cases the ICE may simply mail the NTA to the alien’s last addresses and it would be considered valid service.
If served with an NTA, the alien is strongly advised to consult an immigration lawyer because being placed under removal proceedings is a serious matter. An immigration lawyer can tell him whether proceedings can be terminated because of a problem with the NTA on its face or in the way that it was served. The lawyer can analyze the facts of the case, explain what options may be available, and if the alien would be eligible for a relief from removal. Reliefs include voluntary departure, asylum, adjustment of status and cancellation of removal.
The alien must attend the scheduled master hearing, which is a preliminary hearing where the charges are read and the alien is asked to admit or contest the allegations and whether he intends to seek relief from removal. An individual hearing is scheduled if the case will be heard on the merits.
The alien may be represented by an attorney at the master and individual hearings. However, unless provided pro bono services by a volunteer attorney or by a non-profit organization, any legal representation will be at the alien’s own cost because there is no right to government-appointed counsel in immigration cases.
The alien must keep the immigration court updated of any change of address and must attend his hearings. If he fails to notify the court of an address change, and because he did not receive correspondence he fails to attend a hearing, the proceedings may continue and may result in the alien being ordered removed in absentia.