What do immigration lawyers actually do? If you’re going through the immigration process, do you need one? These are completely fair questions, so let’s start with two important points:
- You are never required to use an immigration lawyer. The immigration statute gives you the right to have an immigration attorney if you want to retain one. The attorney can file legal documents as your representative and can appear with you at immigration interviews. But you are never required to have one if you prefer not to.
- Most people do not use an immigration lawyer. Whether immigration lawyers like it or not, that’s the simple truth. Most people who successfully complete the immigration process never hire a lawyer. There are good reasons that you might want legal representation, but you should also know that thousands of people immigrate every year without a lawyer’s help. No one should scare you into hiring a lawyer by saying that it’s impossible to succeed without one. That’s just not true.
So if you’re not required to have a lawyer, and most people don’t, why would you want one? Here are three main values that an attorney can offer you.
1. Strategic advice
We’ve all heard that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But that’s ridiculous. What type of person would start a thousand mile trek without asking for directions first? The very most valuable service an immigration lawyer can offer isn’t helping you along your journey (though that’s important, too). The most important thing is to get you heading down the right road!
Let’s just use one common example that we encounter. A couple has heard that it’s possible to apply for a marriage based green card. Maybe they’ve done some basic research and looked in the forms that are required – they know it’s called adjustment of status. They think that since they understand how to complete the forms, why bother with a lawyer? The foreign spouse signs up for the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA), or gets a tourist visa, and flies to the United States to get the process started.
What’s wrong with this?
Since the foreign spouse came to the U.S. with the intention to seek a green card – and came on a temporary status – he has committed an act of fraud. His green card application can be denied. What’s far worse, is that he can also be subjected to a lifetime ban from ever returning to the U.S. The problem is not with how the couple filled out the forms; the problem is with the road they chose.
If you are going to spend any money on legal assistance for an immigration case, it should be at the very beginning – before you chose a road to head down. A simple one-hour consultation could have saved this couple many thousands of dollars in expense. Worse, someone in their situation may create a problem that can’t be fixed at any cost. That’s why the most valuable service an immigration lawyer can offer is as a strategic adviser. A good immigration attorney should be able to help you understand what roads you’re allowed to walk down. Sometimes there’s more than one possible road, and the attorney can tell you the pluses and minuses associated with the different options.
2. Trusted counselor
Yesterday I got an email from a client. We filed a petition for her fiancée back in January, and she wanted to know what would happen if it wasn’t granted in time for their scheduled wedding. So we talked about the likelihood the petition would be granted (very good), but also about the backup strategy we could use. She felt comforted knowing what the options were, and took that news to her family who were also worried.
The fact is that the immigration process is stressful. A lot is riding on an application, and our clients are understandably very anxious to see everything turn out as planned. We find that our clients have questions not just at the beginning of a case, but throughout the process. One of the best services we can provide is staying by our clients’ side throughout the process. Our clients can communicate with their attorney whenever they want to, and they aren’t charged extra for these questions. By doing this we can help reduce our clients’ stress by giving them the assurance they have correct, competent answers to the many questions that arise.
It’s also important to understand the fiduciary duty that attorneys have to their clients. Lawyers have an ethical duty to serve the interests of their clients. This goes far beyond the fact that any business tries to please its customers. The fiduciary duty means that lawyers put their clients interests ahead of the lawyer’s own interests. I’m reminded of a recent case with our attorney, Gustavo Cueva. One of his clients was scheduled for an immigration interview on very short notice – only 5 business days. The interview conflicted with a conference that Gustavo had already paid to attend – the most important regional conference for immigration attorneys. Because it was important to our client that he move forward with the interview, Gustavo skipped part of the conference so he could be at his client’s side.
That’s just one small example of how attorneys place their clients’ interests ahead of their own. It’s certainly not unique to our law firm: I see lawyers throughout our community who spend long days away from their families to ensure that their clients get the best care possible.
3. Save you time and stress
Let’s say you’ve consulted an attorney, and you’re now 100% sure that you can proceed down a particular immigration path. Will you be able to figure out how to successfully complete the process by yourself? For almost all of our clients my guess is that yes, they could probably do it by themselves. Our clients are smart, capable folks. So why would our clients hire a law firm? Because they don’t want to have to figure it all out.
I generally say that completing an immigration process is about as complex as doing taxes for a small business. When I first opened our firm, resources were thin, so I did all my taxes. I had to figure out quarterly filings, and grapple with federal income returns. It was terrible. While I probably made some mistakes along the way, I did ultimately get it all figured out. But it took a huge amount of my time. And I absolutely hate thinking about tax, so it was obnoxious and stressful to have to spend hours reading about all that stuff. Now that the resources are available I simply pay someone to do all that for me. From their standpoint it’s simple, because they do this work all day long. But for me it’s a terrific deal because I simply don’t have to worry about the tax work, it’s just magically completed for me.
So too with many immigration processes. A smart married couple can research how to do an adjustment case. There are lots of resources online, and probably they will eventually figure it out. For some that may be the best option, especially if resources are tight. But busy, successful people have limited time resources. Our clients don’t hire our firm because they’re incompetent; they hire us because they have other things they would rather do with their scarce nights and weekends.
There is also the matter of delay caused by small technical mistakes. For a while the National Visa Center (NVC) was rejecting about 80% of all Affidavits of Support filed there! That means most applicants experienced an additional delay of a month or more. Many of those rejections were for highly technical errors, like a single missing answer on the form. Fortunately the NVC has stopped being so hyper-technical on this particular form, but I just use that as an example. Last year we were seeing document review delays of 60 days in all NVC cases. This means that any rejection from the NVC would result in at least an additional two-month delay for a case.
Even with the best legal assistance the immigration authorities can issue Requests for Evidence, causing delay. But a good immigration attorney maximizes your chances of getting through the process with no or little unnecessary delay.
Make the right decision for you.
Ultimately only you can decide whether you want to work with an immigration lawyer. Plenty of people go through the process without one. Others use a lawyer and can’t imagine having done it alone. As an immigration lawyer, I want to work with clients only if they feel I’m bringing great value to the table. If you are feeling very reluctant to speak with a lawyer then spend some time researching immigration law. Make the decision that’s right for you and right for your family.