Many folks decide to handle immigration cases on their own. That’s understandable.
It is rarely prudent.
Over the years, I’ve seen the outcome for countless individuals who decided to represent themselves in immigration matters.
Take immigration court hearings.
Representing my own clients fighting deportation at court, I’ve watched pro per immigrants sitting before a judge, neither comprehending court rules nor understanding what the judge is asking them.
It’s p-a-i-n-f-u-l to watch.
(Judges refer to individuals without lawyers as being pro per or pro se, the former being taken from “in propria persona.” Both pro per and pro se come from Latin and essentially mean “for one’s own person.”)
Other times, during office consultations, I have met persons who already filed permanent residence applications on their own . . . and lost.
They had gone to an interview at their local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office anticipating a green card. They returned home deflated, often clueless why their applications were rejected.
Afterwards they consult with me, seeking to find out what went wrong. Sometimes the problems which undermined their cases could have been avoided.
Worse, many face the prospect of being sent to court to confront removal charges.
Confident with the knowledge gained during our meeting, several leave my office, planning to represent themselves once more on their own.
They’re now headed to becoming the next round of pro per immigrants described above who cluelessly squirm when the immigration judge begins to read the allegations against them.
They don’t know what to admit, what to deny, and how to object to certain information.
Recent statistics show that 63% of immigrants go to court alone. That means about 2 out of every 3 immigrants try to navigate the turbulent waters of immigration law without an attorney.
I suspect the numbers of unrepresented immigrants are higher when it comes to filing for benefits like a green card or citizenship with USCIS.
When I go with my clients to their interview, it seems like for every 25 cases, there are only about four lawyers in the waiting room.
As a result, in the hopes that I can help pro per immigrants avoid certain miscues, I’ve prepared this short list of five mistakes which immigrants, helping themselves, frequently make.
I’ve broken these errors into three categories: the practical, the tactical, and the foolish.
The Practical – Errors Of Simplicity
1. The Virtue Of Duplication: Failing To Keep Copies Of Documents
Let’s start with a very basic, easily correctable error.
The failure keep complete copies of papers filed with government offices. This mistake is highly common and especially disastrous for individuals seeking permanent resident status.
Based on immigrants who visit my office, there are four types of document collectors:
- Immigrants who have several documents, sometimes a few bag loads, usually unorganized
- Immigrants who have some documents, occasionally organized into neat sections
- Immigrants who have a few documents, and they’re unaware what is missing from their collection
- Immigrants who have no documents
The groups are not divided evenly. About 80% fall into the bottom two categories.
More significantly, about 95% of prospective immigration clients who visit my office are clueless about the meaning of their paperwork.
To be clear, many pro per clients do not handle their paperwork completely on their own. They depend on the help of a family member, co-worker, or friend.
Others use the services of typing assistants, paralegals, and notarios to prepare their applications.
Far, far too often, these preparers do not keep copies of materials sent to the government. Nor do they tell the immigrant whom they’re assisting to keep copies.
I’ve seen instances where an immigrant or their assistant has mailed the immigrant’s original or certified documents. This is not a good idea.
What happens if the government misplaces your immigration documentes – or worse, loses them?
What happens if the materials are sent to the wrong address, and no return address is posted on the envelope?
You’re pretty much out of luck.
(The only exception is when a client has two or more original or certified copies of a specific document.)
Maybe years later, the government will find your documents.
By that time, you may have lost more than time because of the delay. Your application may be denied, because the government wanted more evidence but you did not respond, thereby forfeiting your case.
On the other hand, perhaps you can spend more money to start over again. Yet, if the program under which you applied is temporary and it disappears during the period of delay, you could lose a golden opportunity to seek benefits.
The Tactical – Miscalculations Of Strategy
2. Costs Versus Investment: Spending Less Does Not Equal Saving Money
Let’s be honest.
Most of the time immigrants hire a notario or other unlicensed document preparer, like a typing services assistant or paralegal, their decision is based primarily on cost. The cheaper, the better.
Or they decide between attorney A and attorney B based on fees. Again, the cheaper, the better
This type of calculation focuses on immigration fees as a short-term expenditure, not a long-term investment.
Yet, spending your life together with your spouse and children in the United States is not a short-term issue, and deportation is often a forever after proposition.
Moreover, this approach to hiring someone to help you overlooks various aspects of the immigration benefit-seeking process.
First, some notaries and other similar assistants charge just as much as attorneys. Yet, they cannot represent you at an interview with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for permanent residency or a hearing at immigration court to fight deportation and removal.
You get a lot less for your dollars spent.
Second, such service providers are usually only capable of filling out paperwork and lack the ability to answer out-of-the-ordinary or complicated immigration questions.
Some will fudge their answers and tell you not to worry about such issues. Others will caution you to seek out the advice of an immigration lawyer before going forward.
In other words, there are low cost service providers who charge less than a lawyer who helps you. But if you assess the fees of lawyers closely, you would often learn their fees for preparing your paperwork are not much different than the fees of the non-attorney services.
It is the additional assistance and guidance of a lawyer which leads to the higher fees. This is the ability to take a negative issue highlighted by the government and transform it into a winning hand.
For the same reason, cheaper fees, some immigrants hire lawyers who do not focus exclusively on immigration law.
. . . And the same types of problems can also arise with general legal practitioners, who handle many different types of law.
Since these attorneys do not specialize in immigration matters, there exists a possibility less obvious nuances will go unnoticed and unaddressed – and this lack of knowledge could lead you into a worse legal position than you were in prior to filing your paperwork.
Both inexperienced general practitioners, like notaries, paralegals, and typing assistants, can end up costing you thousands of dollars more than you anticipated when you hired them.
After all, having to do your paperwork over from the beginning – or if you have already lost – having to retain an lawyer to appeal a negative decision or to reopen your case will cost more than if your case was handled correctly in the first place.
3. Apples And Oranges: Comparing Your Case To Someone Else’s Case
Just like they bring in differing amounts of of paperwork, immigration clients bring varying degrees of emotional luggage to attorney consultations.
Some arrive with an open mind. They want to ask questions and learn about possible options. They’re frightened but are open to discovering potential solutions.
Some had bad experiences with attorneys, perhaps in other areas of law. They bring negative attitudes and perceptions of lawyers, and a lack of trust to their interviews. They’re not open to rational dialogue.
Some arrive at my office with a pre-formulated conception how their case will proceed, even after a botched attempt to handle their cases on their own or with the help of a low-cost preparer.
Many times they have told by someone – and, sadly, they believe – that their case is similar to some other person’s case.
- They may not even know who this other person
- They may know this other person, but have not viewed his paperwork
- They may have viewed his paperwork, but did not understand any of it
Still, they assume their case will flow down the same river.
They’re told – and they believe:
“Why do you need to hire an attorney? My uncle Julio got a green card without a lawyer. His case was just like yours. I’ll talk to him and find out what papers he filed. You’ll save money.”
The adviser, of course, never attended law school.
Clients who follow such reasoning assume not only that their paperwork is the same, but also that the facts of their lives are the same as that of Uncle Julio.
Since Uncle Julio filed his application, the paperwork could have changed, and new questions are being asked.
Or the rules could have been tightened last week, and additional information is now required.
. . . Most certainly, your case facts will never be the same as another person’s, not even that of your twin sister.
In other words, this is not how immigration law works. You might need to file the same paperwork, pay the same fees, and meet the same requirements as Uncle Julio. That’s where the similarity ends.
From my vantage point, it’s easy to understand why clients want predictable, routine answers and would like to follow the formula used in Uncle Julio’s situation.
However, the reality is that no two cases are exactly alike.
It’s like, well, comparing apples and oranges.
Your application to become a permanent resident, to win naturalization, or to defeat defeat deportation is fact specific.
The facts are derived from your life and immigration history – not the life and history of Uncle Julio.
Your life and immigration history are unique to you, and you alone.
So if you are tempted to compare your cases to another person’s case, stop for a moment and realize you likely have no idea how his life and immigration history matches up with yours.
For instance, you do not know if many years ago, what other, if any, paperwork was filed for him.
You do not how his entry and exit history matches up to yours. You do not know what legal points he might have needed to use to get his case approved – and whether the same arguments will apply to your situation.
As a pro per applicant for immigration benefits, you must be careful, super careful, about relying on information provided by a relative, friend, or co-worker not trained to practice law.
Even if you have done a great deal of research on Google and the internet, the web is not to be blindly trusted.
The internet has a lot of misinformation and outdated advice. It is easy to get confused or misled.
Without talking to an immigration attorney, it’s hard to decipher what is current and not current, what is true and not true, what is accurate and not accurate about the outside recommendations you receive from other persons or the internet.
When it comes to immigration law, cases are rarely as simple as suggested.
If you realize that comparing your case to anyone else’s example, in person or on the internet, is like comparing apples with oranges, you have the knowledge to avoid making this common pro per error.
The Foolish – Blunders Of Carelessness
4. Restraint And Caution: Traveling Back And Forth Across The Border
Going in and out of the United States without a visa can pose a serious obstacle for immigrants when they seek to legalize their status.
Many do not know that such actions may expose them to bars against re-entry for three years, ten years, or permanently depending on how long they remained in the U.S. prior to their departures.
When pro per immigrants discuss their various entries with me after their applications, filed pro per, have been denied, it is generally too late to help them overcome the decision.
Sometimes they can begin the process again. Other times, their hopes of living and working legally in the United States are too deeply compromised.
I sometimes hear that an individual has went in and out of the country on multiple occasions – one, two, three, perhaps four times.
On one or more attempts to get back inside the U.S., he was apprehended by immigration officials. He was fingerprinted, photographed, and sent back to his home country.
When I ask why such trips were taken, I am often told that since he had not seen his family a long time, he went to visit them.
He knew re-entering was risky but reasoned he would try and try again.
Those who accept this risk sometimes know successful re-entry imposes a different type of challenge on them.
In short, when immigrants enter without permission, leaving and re-entering has the potential to become the death knell of their later applications for permanent residence.
Such issues of entry and residence should always be evaluated before marriage.
Consider the plight of a mixed-status immigrant couple who consulted with me two days ago.
When I met with them, the U.S. citizen wife handed me a document given to the husband during his interview abroad five years ago. The form stated her husband was not allowed to come back to the United States for ten years. He returned less than four days afterwards.
He did not know nor was he told by his document preparer that to win his case, he would need to earn a waiver – the forgiveness of not just his lengthy undocumented stay in the country, but also his various exit and entry transgressions.
Now, if he is ever detained, depending on the nature of the document he was given, the order could be reinstated and used to streamline deportation back to his home country.
Here is a general line of inquiry pertaining to exits and entries which immigrants seeking to win green cards can can expect the government to ask:
- How many times did you leave the United States?
- Why did you leave the United States each time?
- When did you leave the United States each time?
- How long did you leave the United States each time?
- When did you re-enter the United States each time?
Last but not least the government will want to know:
- How did you re-enter the United States each time – with permission, including immigration parole, or without inspection and lawful admission?
As I noted above, by the time I usually talk to pro per applicants, they have already submitted their paperwork.
Their applications have been denied because of the period of time they spent in the U.S. without valid documents coupled with their history of leaving the U.S. and returning on multiple occasions without permission.
Sometimes an immigrant’s re-entry after departure has taken place with a passport or visa which on the surface appeared valid, but was procured or reused via inaccurate information. This is still a re-entry without permission.
Pro per immigrants should be extra cautious, and those who have this type of exit and entry history exhibit a reckless disregard for immigration rules.
5: Lying To Immigration Officials: Not Telling The Truth
This piece of advice is a no-brainer.
Indeed, not telling the truth is such an obvious blunder, I’ll keep this section short.
Under immigration law, this type of action is called misrepresentation.
If an immigrant lies on his immigration visa application, to a border patrol officer upon entry, or even at a green card interview, he could be stuck with a lifetime bar to any immigration benefit.
If that’s not enough to scare pro per immigrants, does jail time sound enticing?
There is a limited waiver – forgiveness – available to immigrants married to U.S. citizens . . . but this waiver is discretionary and authorities do not like to approve permanent residence applications for someone who has misled them.
Take the above section involving multiple exits and entries. I often get asked, “If USCIS does not know my husband left and returned multiple times, do we have to tell them?”
Yes, you do.
Sometimes if you’ve used a preparer or less-than-stellar lawyer, you may be asked to skip listing certain dates and details.
Run away from that person as quickly as possible.
It is far better to answer questions truthfully but carefully – not falsely.
Or perhaps to defer applying until the law changes.
In other words, why would any immigrant want to build their case on a foundation that might crumble at any time?
Even if you obtain permanent residency, you need to reapply in ten years. What will your paperwork reveal at that time?
What if you’re involved in a negative incident which causes you to fight at immigration court to preserve your green card status?
Why would any immigrant be willing to worry about the exposure of falsehoods for his entire life?
To do so is pure foolishness.
A Law School Tip: Lawyers, Clients, And Fools
Earlier, I pointed out that some immigrants, armed with information gained during our consultation, decide to represent themselves.
However thorough our discussions, there are many nuances that cannot be ascertained during just one meeting.
And what you don’t know may destroy your immigration dreams entirely.
In law school, I was taught, “Only a fool has himself for a client.”
The meaning was clear. Despite my legal training, I should not represent myself if I was ever caught up in a legal entanglement.
Neither should immigrants.
By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics