Can I Hire an Immigration Lawyer Who Is Not in My State Bar?

Your attorney needs to be licensed by a state bar association -- but not necessarily the local state bar association.

When hiring an attorney to represent you in immigration law matters, the usual advice about making sure he or she is a member in good standing of your state bar association does not apply – at least, not with respect to the word "your."

Immigration law is federal, and is administered through a federal agency (the Department of Homeland Security). Once a lawyer has been licensed by the bar association of one or more states, and learned the basics of immigration law, the lawyer can set up practice wherever he or she chooses – in any U.S. state, or even in another country.

The immigration authorities recognize this fact, and regardless of which U.S. state the office or immigration court the immigrant applicant will be interacting with is located, accept representation by lawyers who are members of the bar in different states. Many attorneys end up practicing far from the state where they were originally licensed. And even if they remain in the same state, they may accept clients from other states or countries.

Note, however, that some differences in interpretation of immigration law exist between the various federal circuits. (The U.S. federal courts are divided into 13 "circuits," based on region; and many immigration matters can be appealed to those courts.) The immigration authorities must follow their local circuit court's interpretations. This can affect both everyday administrative matters as well as issues that come up in deportation or removal proceedings. Therefore, it can be helpful to hire a lawyer who has been practicing for some years in the area where your immigration case will be decided upon.

Also, if you will be asking the immigration lawyer to interpret how a state crime will be viewed under the immigration laws, that attorney needs to be a bar member in the state where the crime and conviction took place. (A responsible immigration attorney will bring in another local attorney as a consultant in such a situation.)

But there are some important caveats to this advice, as follows.

  • The attorney must be a member of SOME state bar association. Do not make the mistake that some do of believing that bar membership is not necessary for an immigration attorney. To represent you in immigration matters, the attorney must be a member of the bar of a U.S. state or possession, territory, commonwealth, or the District of Columbia). It just doesn't matter which state.
  • The attorney must be in good standing with his or her state bar association – that is, not the subject of any disciplinary actions, and not under any court order restricting his or her practice of law.
  • The attorney must be an attorney. That might sound obvious, but people such as "notarios," immigration consultants, paralegals, document preparers, volunteers at community associations, and so forth are not authorized to analyze your case or act on your behalf unless under the direct supervision of an attorney. Even if they have your best interests at heart, immigration law is insanely complicated, and trusting your case to a non-expert can lead to disaster.

And of course, for convenience sake, you probably want to hire an attorney who is practicing in the area where you will be attending your immigration interviews or hearings, so that you can have your attorney present without paying for plane tickets!

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