If you are interested in obtaining a green card in order to live, work, and stay in the United States for more than just a temporary time period, then you probably know that the rules and procedures are complicated. U.S. immigration law is full of exceptions and inconsistencies. The forms and documents required can be overwhelming, government delays or mix-ups are inevitable, and mistakes by the applicant can have disastrous consequences.
In short, though you are not required to get an attorney, most people are happy with their decision to have done so. (See this survey on Family-Based Green Cards: Are Immigration Lawyers Worth the Cost?)
The U.S. immigration system is widely regarded as "broken." The law itself is torturously difficult to understand. It takes lawyers years just to become comfortable with the ins and outs of various types of visas, green cards, and other benefits.
While the law is written partly to benefit the applicants, for example, by allowing them to reunite with family members in the U.S. or gain asylum as protection from prosecution, it is also written to protect the U.S. from entry by people who might be a drain on the country's resources or present a health or security threat to U.S. society.
That means that surprisingly few people have a straightforward, easily approved case. All it takes is one past visa overstay, criminal conviction, serious health problem, or job loss to make a person "inadmissible," thus requiring extra effort in convincing the immigration authorities to approve the application.
And let's not forget the possibility that the U.S. government will misplace all or part of your application, or pester you for documents that don't exist or that you don't believe you should have to provide. It happens all the time.
Lawyers' associations hold special meetings just to discuss the latest ways of contacting someone within the immigration bureaucracy when something like this goes wrong. (The government doesn't make it easy.) Without a lawyer's help, you might spend hours on hold waiting to talk to an immigration customer service officer, only to be told by someone who has no actual access to your file that your case is "pending."
As with any legal representation, there are fees to pay. But when you consider the time and headaches saved, it can be well worth it.
A few hours trying to fill out immigration forms, and you might just change your mind. True, the more knowledgeable you are about the process you're about to undertake, and about the work you're paying the lawyer to perform, the better off you'll be. You can help the lawyer prepare a solid application on your behalf by supplying the needed information and documents and making intelligent decisions about your case.
But when it comes to actually preparing the whole case yourself ... yes, some people have done it, and succeeded. If you really can't afford any other option, there are resources to help you, such as the articles found, and the books mentioned on, this site.
But you're taking your chances, and the stakes are high. Some mistakes on an immigration application can result in not only the application being denied, but the immigrant becoming inadmissible for a period of several years.