What Questions Should I Expect During My Individual “Merits” Hearing?

Preparing for your individual hearing means getting ready to answer any questions the immigration judge might have about your asylum claim.

If you are a non-citizen in removal proceedings, the most important date in your case will be your individual “merits” hearing. This is because your individual hearing is when the judge will decide on whether or not you will be deported.

The goal of this hearing is to determine whether or not a judge should grant your asylum petition.

During your hearing, the Immigration Judge will ask you questions which can cover a wide variety of topics, from criminal history and family ties to the reason why you’re applying for asylum in the first place.

In this article, we’ll explain the types of questions you can expect during this process.

The Individual Hearing Process

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Most individual hearings last several hours, and can even be scheduled for several separate hearings. The individual hearing process can be broken down into 3 general steps, which go as follows.

Step 1: Opening Statements

The first thing that will happen during your hearing is that your attorney will give an opening statement.

This statement summarizes the reasons why the Immigration Judge should grant you asylum, and generally summarizes the information you’ve presented to the court in other documents.

Step 2: Questioning

After your attorney finishes their opening statement, you’ll have to take the stand and be “sworn in” so you can answer questions about your case.

Generally, this will begin with your attorney asking you questions about your story. During this process, the Immigration Judge will likely jump in and ask further questions about specific details they’re interested in. The judge’s questions will generally fall under one of the three topics we list in the section below.

When you’re done telling your story, the Department of Homeland Security’s attorney will begin asking you another set of questions. However, these questions are meant to directly test the credibility of your claim.

If you’re confused by a question, don’t answer it. Instead, ask the DHS attorney to clarify, then answer the question as clearly as you can.

If you have any witnesses, they will then take the stand and go through the same process. Your attorney, the Immigration Judge, and the DHS attorney will all ask them further questions about your case.

Step 3: Closing Statements and the Judge’s Decision

After all parties finish their questioning, your attorney will make a closing statement. This statement generally outlines why the judge should approve your asylum petition, as well as address any possible doubts created by the questions asked in the previous step.

For example, sometimes a judge might be confused about a topic that is lost in translation. In this scenario, your attorney might clarify the meaning of a particular word or phrase which affects the credibility of your statements.

In most cases, the Immigration Judge will decide to grant or deny your asylum case at the end of your individual hearing. However, sometimes the judge will take weeks or months to issue a written statement.

What Questions will the Immigration Judge and DHS Attorney Ask?

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Immigration judges don’t have a set list of questions they’ll read off during your hearing. Instead, they’ll ask questions which center on certain topics they need to know about to decide your asylum case. Similarly, the DHS attorney will change their questions based on particular parts of your story.

For example, if a judge is deciding on whether to grant you a defensive asylum petition, they will most likely ask questions related to whether you’re actually eligible for defensive asylum.

Questions like “what were your assailants wearing” and “why was this gang targeting you” are common in this scenario because they can help the judge determine whether or not you’re telling the truth.

Specifically, most judges will try to determine three things during your hearing:

  • If you are a credible witness (can they trust you to tell the truth).
  • Whether you have a credible fear of persecution.
  • The reason or purpose that you specifically came to the United States.

We’ll briefly expand on each of these topics below.

1) Analyze and Prove the Credibility of the Witness

One of the most basic lines of questioning the judge and DHS attorney will have will center on deciding on whether or not you’re a credible witness. Essentially, they will ask you questions about your case to see whether or not your answers line up with the documents you’ve given the court.

Giving any conflicting information during this line of questioning might hurt your case, while a clear and concise description of your situation will strengthen your defense.

If you can answer the questions in English, that’s great. However, if you aren’t comfortable communicating in English then you should ask for an interpreter.

Whether you are answering the questions in English or not, make sure you answer the judges questions clearly and in as much detail as they ask for.

2) Analyze Whether there is a Credible Fear of Persecution

Most all asylum cases are based on a “credible fear of persecution.” If you are fleeing violence or unlivable conditions in your home country, you might be able to prove that you have a credible fear of persecution.

According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIC) office, you can seek asylum for persecution in a few specific circumstances.

Specifically, you must be fleeing your home country because of your:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Membership in a particular social group
  • Political opinion

During your hearing, the judge will ask you questions to determine whether or not you have a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of these identity groups. Similarly, the DHS attorney might try to prove that you don’t fall under one of these groups.

For example, they’ll often ask you to talk about the specific circumstances that made you flee your home country. What threats were made against you or your family? What happened that put your life in danger? How do these events relate to the identity groups listed above (i.e. “were you threatened because of your political beliefs or for some other reason”)?

3) Ascertain Whether You Must Move to the United States

This final line of questioning is actually a bit tricky to understand at first.

Essentially, the judge and DHS attorney will probably ask if you had any other options besides seeking asylum in the United States. For example, they might ask you whether you tried to relocate within your own country, or whether another location would work better for your specific situation.

As a common recent example, many immigrants seeking asylum in the United States settle in Mexico for a few months before crossing the border. Because they successfully settled in another country before trying to enter the United States, a judge might deny their asylum petition.

The Immigration Judge and DHS attorney might also ask if you moved to another locality and still received threats from the original source of persecution.

For example, if you were placed on the “blacklist” of a certain gang, you might feel unsafe in any country or location where that gang is operating.

In all of these scenarios, the judge and DHS attorney are essentially trying to find out if you have to move to the United States, or if there are others ways you can safely flee persecution.

To this end, it’s smart to have your attorney ask questions such as “why did you come to the United States?” in scenarios where you can fulfill this requirement.

Conclusion

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As a non-citizen seeking asylum, your individual hearing is one of the most important steps in your case.

During this hearing, you will make your case for asylum before an immigration judge, who will then decide whether or not you can stay in the country.

The judge will ask you several questions to determine whether or not your case has “merit.”

Although there is not a set list of questions a judge will ask, you should be able to provide details about why you were forced to flee your native country, as well as why you are seeking asylum in the United States.

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