If you’re on this page, it’s likely you or a loved one is facing some type of immigration challenge. And you feel the need to hire a lawyer.
But you might not be sure where to begin.
The good news is that you are already one step ahead of many immigrants who want to live and work in the United States.
Every year, hundreds lose their opportunities to immigrate to the United States. Some because they think they can rely on the advice of a friend or family member.
Others fail because they choose the wrong lawyer. They pin their hopes and often considerable sums of money on someone who cannot help.
A large number of these cases could have ended on a positive note . . . if the persons involved had taken your approach.
Why do I say this?
Well, as a San Bernardino immigration attorney, I have over 20 years in the trenches of immigration wars. I have front-line experience battling countless obstacles immigrants face.
During this period, rules to earn permanent residence have become more complicated. At the same time, law enforcement efforts against immigrants have taken on a harsher tone.
Put bluntly, immigration success is harder today than ever before.
You should not underestimate the odds against you.
If you win, you get to build a future here, with all the privileges of living in the United States as a legal resident.
If you lose, you may have to go back to your home country. This often means a return to poverty, widespread corruption, physical torture, or worse.
Yet, hiring a lawyer can be scary.
You may have heard stories about lawyers who take money from a client yet only put up a half-hearted fight.
You may have heard about lawyers who – poof! – disappear after getting paid.
Or about those lawyers who aren’t even lawyers at all.
With some guidance, you can avoid these tragic situations.
That is why I have written this article.
You will find a shortlist of concerns to think about, as you search for an immigration attorney.
They will help save you heartache and hassle . . . and boost your family’s chance to live together in the United States.
Is your lawyer really a lawyer – licensed to practice in at least one state?
Watch out for scammers who advertise their services as immigration consultants. Many of them do not have licenses to practice law.
No immigrant community is immune.
Just this month, I learned about immigration schemes in Florida affecting Haitians, who are still trying to overcome the ravages of the massive earthquake which damaged their homeland.
In New York, reports surfaced about several Chinese victims of political persecution being ripped off by con artists.
And in Los Angeles, Salvadorean women, seeking refuge from abuse at the hands of uncontrollable gangs, have been taken advantage of by scammers.
The crooks posed as immigration consultants.
That’s just the beginning
When new immigration programs launch, some attorneys start recruiting clients for their services. On the surface, they claim to help immigrants seek benefits under the new laws. Their real purpose is to make short-term profits.
Many times, these lawyers have a history of suspensions from their state bar associations. Their licenses may be inactive or revoked.
Unfortunately, by the time victims of immigration fraud arrive at my office, it’s usually too late. The damage is done. Their immigration dreams have been destroyed.
However, don’t confuse these con artists with lawyers properly licensed in another state.
Immigration law is a form of federal law. An attorney licensed in Illinois can represent clients in Oregon. If you have the slightest doubt, call the Bar Association of the state where the lawyer says he is licensed.
The same is true for attorneys who advertise their services on the internet. Most of these lawyers are authentic. But to be on the safe side, check their credentials before doing business with them.
Does your attorney have the specialized immigration knowledge you need?
Immigration law is extremely complex. It is almost impossible for a lawyer to have a strong knowledge of immigration law without specializing in this field.
Even when you find a lawyer who is an immigration specialist, you still need to dig deeper.
For instance, some immigration attorneys focus on employment-based petitions. These are cases where an employer sponsors an employee to remain in the U. S. for specific job purposes.
Even though those lawyers qualify to work with employers, they might not be the right choice if you need help with a family immigration visa.
During consultations, you need to ask attorneys about your specific problem.
The questions can be simple.
Like “Have you handled cases where a citizen wanted to bring a fiancé to the United States?”
Or “Have you worked on cases involving immigrants who were domestic violence victims of American spouses?”
But the issues are not simple. Lawyers who do not specialize in immigration law are likely to struggle with them.
Additionally, many cases take a long time to work their way through the legal system. During this time, changes to green card rules sometimes occur.
Only attorneys who keep tabs on up-to-the-minute immigration law will foresee them in advance. And be able to react quickly enough to keep your case on track.
Did your attorney refuse to give you a guarantee?
I know this question sounds unusual. Still, it’s important you ask it.
No matter how much experience a lawyer has with cases like yours, every legal matter is unique. All immigration matters depend on a multitude of factors.
As noted earlier, a rule at the heart of your case might be overturned, in the middle of your case, changing the way your judge is required to assess the facts of your application.
A good lawyer, given such unpredictability, can only promise to do his or her best.
Obviously, it is more comforting to hear your lawyer guarantee a particular result.
But it is not in your best interests to ignore potential pitfalls and minimize obstacles ahead.
In my view, lawyer ads claiming “90% success rate” are misleading. These advertisements are geared to cause you to relax your guard, to think permanent residence is virtually assured.
You should be wary of such claims. Maybe the lawyer really has a 90% success rate. Maybe your case fits into the other 10%.
Here’s what I tell my own prospective clients.
“As your immigration representative, you can count on me to be hard-working, tenacious, and dedicated. But I cannot and will not guarantee the final result.”
“If I do not think I can help you, I will let you know right at the start. I will accept your case only if I believe that I can make a positive difference in helping you reach your immigration goals. Still, I refuse to make any promises about specific results.”
Of course, some clients think my position is too weak. They decide not to hire me. And that’s better for both of us.
Clients should be told about possible difficulties ahead. They should not be surprised when the fighting gets fierce.
When I think about clients who hire a lawyer based on one of these guarantees, I can hear my mother’s words in the background.
You reap what you sow.
Is your lawyer an immigration champion committed to immigration fairness?
As a client, you cannot expect any sympathy from an immigration officer or an immigration judge. Neither should your immigration lawyer.
Your lawyer often needs to be more than a lawyer. He or she needs to be your champion.
Not all attorneys are suited for the rough and tumble of immigration law.
Allow me to explain.
During my years as an immigration lawyer, I have faced plenty of hostile judges, rude government attorneys, and bully prison guards.
I learned how to stand my ground.
In several cases, had I backed down, my clients’ chances of success would have been damaged.
The ability to remain firm in the eye of the storm is no easy task. It stems from a deep-rooted commitment to fighting for immigrants.
Because your future is on the line, you need an attorney for whom the job is more than just a job.
It is not easy to figure out if a lawyer has a personal commitment to improving the lives of immigrants. (I go through the same ordeal when I look for a doctor to perform an operation.)
But there are some indicators.
For example, does your attorney:
- Publicly speak out or write candidly about immigration issues?
- Participate in community forums and clinics to explain controversial and confusing laws?
- Provide information, resources, and organizations which you can consult for further help?
These activities do not guarantee your lawyer will be a strong advocate when the chips are down.
Yet, they are worth considering when your immigration hopes and dreams are on the line.
As you interview with attorneys, ask yourself if you can feel their commitment.
Be alert and trust your instincts.
Does your lawyer treat you with kindness, respect, and dignity?
Behind every immigration case, there is a profound human story.
Does your lawyer treat you with kindness, respect, and dignity?
Behind every immigration case, there is a profound human story.
Immigrants come from all regions in the world. They bring unique family histories, beliefs, languages, and traditions.
You must feel confident in your attorney’s appreciation for diverse cultures.
You must believe your lawyer will treat your customs and opinions with respect. Or you will be unlikely to trust his or her advice.
When it comes to attorney-client rapport, I think about my father. He was a first generation immigrant to the United States.
He was raised in poverty. His family often went barefoot or wore shoes with holes on the bottom.
Sometimes they did not have enough food to put on the table for breakfast or dinner. Three meals a day were out of the question. As the oldest of nine children, he left his country as a teenager to find work.
My father had very limited education and English skills. He spent his entire life in the U.S. as a farmworker and dishwasher. On Tuesday, every week, he sent $25 home.
I always wonder how his attorney treated him. Despite my dad’s lack of sophistication, I hope he was treated with kindness, respect, and dignity.
His memory guides my beliefs about attorney-client rapport.
Every client should be given the proper level of kindness, respect, and dignity by their lawyers.
Some moments of your past may be painful to remember and share. Yet, an obscure fact in your background is sometimes the difference between winning and losing your case.
Perhaps you were the victim of genital mutilation or ethnic cleansing. Maybe you experienced violent physical abuse at the hands of a past spouse. Or you witnessed the public murder of a parent.
If your lawyer is not sensitive to your emotional discomfort about discussing such incidents, it is better to keep looking for another attorney.
Rapport with your lawyer is essential to immigration success.
Did your attorney discuss fees frankly and openly?
The costs of hiring an attorney vary significantly.
Some types of cases are more expensive than others. For example, hiring a lawyer to defend you against deportation will usually cost more than filing to bring a fiancé from overseas to live here with you.
Attorney fees are negotiable.
Generally, lawyers will charge fees based on their past experiences and relative complexity of your legal situation. Lower prices sometimes charged by newer attorneys, who may not have experienced the wide gamut of complexities which can arise in the middle of cases.
Some immigration attorneys charge a flat fee per project. Others bill their clients by the hour. Neither option is right or wrong.
Some clients compare attorney fees with the charges quoted by an immigration consultant. This is like comparing apples and oranges.
Most immigration consultants prepare only the paperwork for an immigration client. They do not assume ongoing obligations.
Lawyers are under a duty to perform their work at a professional level. They remain responsible if problems related to their work product arise later.
All-in-all, attorney fees are an investment in your future.
As noted earlier, if you win your immigration case, you get to build your future here. If you lose, you have to return to your home country.
The difference in value between the two outcomes cannot be objectively calculated.
Only you can make this determination.
Only you can decide whether a particular lawyer’s fees are a worthy expenditure for you and your family.
I hope these insights help you in your quest to earn a green card and someday become a U.S. citizen.
Since you have read this far, I have confidence you will make an intelligent choice.
There are several good attorneys out there who can safely guide you through the permanent residence process.
Take the time to re-read these six insights, if necessary, and I am sure you’ll be able to find one.
Ready to take a serious and honest look at the strengths and weaknesses of your immigration case? Let’s get started with a personalized strategy and planning consultation . . .