A good immigration attorney can make all the difference to your chances of successfully obtaining a U.S. visa, green card, citizenship, protection from deportation, or some other U.S. immigration benefit. Many immigration lawyers are hard-working, honest professionals. They genuinely want to help you understand your immigration options and deal with a difficult, delay-prone government bureaucracy. In fact, they could probably be making a lot more money in some other area of law!
However, there are unprofessional, inexperienced, all-out bad immigration lawyers out there as well. They might overcharge you, fail to provide the promised services, and even permanently damage your case. There are even scammers who prey on immigrants, pretending to be immigration lawyers, who at times even talk foreign nationals into applying for benefits that don't exist.
No matter what immigration benefit or relief you're seeking, let's make sure you get the best lawyer on your side and avoid the lesser types of practitioners.
Although you aren't required to hire a lawyer for your immigration case, it can make a huge difference, from start to finish. A good lawyer can:
For additional information, see What Do Immigration Lawyers Do?.
Simply helping you avoid mistakes can be one of the most important things an immigration lawyer does. Here's an example from the marriage-based immigration context: Many people have read about the application procedures for applying for a green card as the spouse of a U.S. citizen, been disturbed at how long it takes to apply from overseas, and thought, "Well, I already have a visitor visa to the U.S., I'll just use that to enter the country and then apply locally!" That happens to be visa fraud, which could destroy their eligibility for any U.S. visa, and which an attorney could have saved them from. (If you want to understand why it's fraud, read Can You Get Married on a U.S. Visitor Visa?.)
How much you will pay an immigration attorney to handle your case can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on what you need. (And it doesn't include related costs, such as for government application costs, photographs, medical exams, travel expenses, and so on.)
Fortunately, many immigration attorneys charge flat fees for services, so that you know what you are getting into from the outset and can compare different attorneys' fees. Of course, you will want to ask each attorney to carefully list what services will be included before you agree to a particular flat fee. If you are bringing family, for example, there might be a separate flat fee for each person.
Don't let your expectations be driven by average flat fees you see online. Until an attorney has fully analyzed your case to see, for example, whether "extra" services are needed; perhaps to ask for a waiver of inadmissibility, or to analyze the effect of a past criminal conviction; it's impossible to say what your case really involves and therefore how much the attorney should charge to handle it.
See Is an Immigration Lawyer Worth the Cost? for more discussion and detail.
There's nothing to stop you from researching immigration law and procedure on your own, trying to fill in some of the forms, and gathering the documents. As you do so, however, you will probably get a sense of the complicated tangle that's involved.
Many people (even including U.S. lawyers who specialize in other legal areas) find themselves hurrying to an immigration attorney's office simply because the headache of dealing with all the forms and procedures makes it worth paying an expert. This is even more true if English is not the applicant's first language.
Yes, people with straightforward cases and the ability to read carefully and pay attention to delays can successfully make it through most any immigration application process on their own. But you would need to be alert for any signs that your case is not a straightforward one. If, for example, you have a criminal record, are in removal proceedings, or have spent more than six months in the United States without permission, you probably need a lawyer's help. Also read When Do You Need an Immigration Lawyer?.
You will probably want to start your search by asking friends and colleagues for recommendations, and searching online.
For example, you can use the Online Chat feature on this page to connect with attorneys. Or, go to Nolo for a unique lawyer directory that provides a comprehensive profile for each attorney, covering their experience, education, and fees. Nolo has confirmed that every listed attorney has a valid license and is in good standing with their bar association. (State bar membership is a requirement for practicing law, though an immigration attorney's bar membership doesn't need to be in the same state as they actually practice in, because immigration law is federal.)
You can then find out more about prospective lawyers for your immigration case from other online sources. Be sure to check whether they are members of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association or AILA. AILA is a professional organization that many of the best immigration attorneys join. It helps keep them up to date on legal changes or behind-the-scenes policies and procedures, and to network with other attorneys who can share experiences and insights.
Also check whether the lawyers you are interested in get good reviews on websites like Martindale, whether they have written professional articles for publication or been quoted in the news media, and so on. Look at each lawyer's own website, too. (Most have one.) If it contains informative, well-written discussions, including links to the above-mentioned articles or media mentions, that's also a good sign. If it mostly seems like advertising meant to hook you in, that's not much of a recommendation.
And if the only reviews or mentions you turn up online show the lawyer having been arrested, professionally disciplined, or disbarred, you can save yourself a personal meeting.
Most of the best immigration attorneys are quite busy. Nevertheless, you should be able to schedule an initial consultation (whether in person, by phone, or virtually). This usually costs around $150 and can take around one hour.
Talking to several different attorneys before making your choice will give you some basis for comparison. It will give you a chance to get a sense of each attorney's personality and work philosophy to determine who will be the best fit. You can ask questions like:
If you visit the attorney's office in person, also observe or chat with office staff to get a sense of their general commitment to clients and professionalism.
In some cases, getting more than one lawyer's opinion might actually reveal that the first attorney did not fully understand your case or the law, or was trying to take your money to do something impossible or unethical. Or, it might confirm that you are on the right track.
Now, for what to watch out for. This is a serious matter. Despite the various professional associations monitoring attorneys, enforcement actions against those who do subpar work can be slow or nonexistent; and the situation is even worse when it comes to fake attorneys.
A few "high-volume, low value" immigration attorneys prowl the hallways of immigration offices attempting to solicit business. This is not considered ethical behavior by the legal bar. Besides, any good immigration attorney is probably going to be too busy practicing immigration law to spend time rounding up new clients this way.
Would you ask a neighbor to replace your heart valve, or your doctor to fill out your tax forms? Hopefully not. For the same reasons, only an actual, practicing lawyer should be trusted to handle your immigration matters.
Unfortunately, many non-lawyers, even well-meaning ones, who don't recognize how complex this area of law really is, claim to be capable of assisting foreigners needing help with the immigration process. In many cases, they offer little value other than a typing service. In the worst cases, they might literally take your money and run, or fill out your forms in wrong and dangerous ways without telling you (or understanding) what they're doing.
Be careful of any immigration attorney who suggests that you do something fishy: perhaps lie on an application or to a USCIS officer, give the attorney extra money with which to bribe an immigration authority, or buy a fake green card.
Such cases have occurred. The sad thing is that if you are caught going along with such a scheme, you are likely to get into more trouble than the attorney. Saying, "But he told me that buying this green card stamp was the fastest way to work in the U.S.!" will likely get you nowhere, and create a permanent stain on your immigration record, potentially making you ineligible for any future visas or green cards (inadmissible).
Not even the best attorneys can guarantee success. Ultimately, the outcome of your case is up to an immigration judge, the Department of Homeland Security and/or USCIS. Any attorney claiming a 100% success rate and guaranteeing you a particular outcome might need to be more closely evaluated.
After choosing a lawyer, it's time to schedule another meeting or phone call. At that time (depending on the lawyer's office policies) you should carefully go over and sign the lawyer's agreement covering what services are to be provided. Be sure to ask questions, and notice what's included or not. For example, if your case is denied and needs an appeal, that probably won't be included in the current fee agreement.
You will likely pay a partial fee at this time (if it's a flat-fee contract) or a retainer (if paying the lawyer by the hour).
The lawyer might have already given you a list of needed documents, or might do so at this time. You'll want to get to work collecting these.
At a certain point, you can hopefully sit back and enjoy the fact that someone else is doing the hard work of handling your immigration case. In fact, most of the responses to applications from the U.S. government should go to your attorney instead of or in addition to you.
Just remember to be responsive to your attorney's requests for information (or payment). If you're having trouble paying, don't just turn off your phone and hide; the attorney might be able to come to different payment arrangement with you.
And whatever you do, don't forget to tell the attorney if your address, phone number, or other contact information changes. Because of government delays, this process could last years, and even if it seems like your case is going nowhere, you will need to be reachable when the attorney has news for you.