If you are a foreign national living in the United States, the one thing you may fear most is the threat of deportation. Whether you are lawfully present or you entered the U.S. without inspection, it is important to understand that your status in the country can change rapidly, especially if you have encounters with law enforcement.

Deportation, also called removal, can be devastating. It may mean leaving behind family and loved ones. You may have a steady job in Texas and a circle of friends who support and love you. You may have plans for a future you could not attain in your home country. For this reason, it is critical not to underestimate the severity of an immigration trial and the potential consequences you face.

The differences

Like many who immigrate to the U.S., you may place your trust in the fairness of the justice system when legal conflicts arise. Unfortunately, the immigration courts are not part of the judicial branch of the U.S. government. The judges in immigration courts are really attorneys whom the U.S. Attorney General appoints. This means the judges are part of the cabinet of the U.S. president and may share the president’s politics on immigration laws. Other ways in which immigration court differs from criminal courts include these:

  • While an immigration trial is similar in structure to a criminal trial, you will not have many of the same constitutional rights as you would in criminal court.
  • Immigration authorities may detain you indefinitely until your trial, even for a minor offense.
  • Since immigration judges typically have a caseload about twice as heavy as judges in federal district courts, your case may take years to complete, during which time you may remain in detention.
  • You will not receive the option of having court-appointed legal counsel, but you may hire an attorney on your own.
  • You may face deportation if convicted even for offenses that the law considers minor for U.S. citizens.
  • As in a criminal trial, you may appeal the court’s decision to deport you, but the appeals board generally upholds the original decision and may not offer further explanation.

In fact, only about 8 percent of appeals of verdicts in immigration trials end with a reversal of deportation orders. Overall, almost 70 percent of the decisions in immigration court end with an order of removal. If you are facing a trial in immigration court, you will not want to handle the complexities without a strong defense. Since criminal and immigration trials are so different, you would benefit from an attorney with experience in both.