Consulting with an experienced immigration attorney is important if you are hoping to permanently live in the U.S.
Christina Elhaddad is an immigration attorney in New Jersey. In this guest blog post, she explains how to find a qualified lawyer to handle your immigration paperwork, answer your questions, and represent your best interests.
(Best of all, it does not have to cost all of your savings!)
Below, learn how to:
- avoid common immigration scams
- identify immigration myths
- find free immigration legal services
One big immigration myth is that the process consists of filling out easy applications—something anyone can do.
After four years of practicing immigration law, I can tell you that it is one of the most complex areas of our legal system. It is also high-risk: One mistake or omission can ruin your chances of obtaining or maintaining legal status.
I often meet with immigrants in my office who admit to me that they falsely claimed to be single on their immigration applications, believing that being unmarried would expedite the process or improve their chances of being granted a visa. Not only is that another huge myth, but if the Department of Homeland Security finds out that someone has lied on their application, that person could easily be charged with fraud. They would be placed in deportation proceedings.
If I could plaster one piece of advice permanently on my office walls, it would be this:
Do not underestimate the value of a good immigration attorney!
In my experience, two out of three clients come to me with the hope that I can fix a mistake that either they or their previous lawyer made. Sometimes it is possible to correct the error; often, it is not.
The cost in time and money to solve the problem is often high. For that reason, it is invaluable to obtain the advice of an experienced immigration attorney before proceeding. For example, if you reside in the U.S. temporarily on a J-1 visa, and you wish to stay in the country after completing your studies, seek advice from a qualified immigration attorney.
To be an attorney in the United States, a person must have attended law school and passed the “bar exam” in any state or Puerto Rico. If you find an attorney on the internet or through a referral, I advise that you thoroughly research the attorney’s credentials and qualifications.
You need to make sure that the person is actually a real attorney. Unfortunately, fraudulently practicing law is a big problem. You would be surprised how many people out there pretend to be immigration law experts and attorneys.
3 Tips for Choosing a Qualified Immigration Attorney
First: Ask a potential attorney, “In what state are you authorized to practice law?”
It is important to know the answer, because each state has an online search directory of all its licensed attorneys. The directory includes, to some extent, a history of complaints and disciplinary actions taken against the attorneys listed.
If you cannot find the person in any state directory, it is likely that he or she is not an actual attorney. It is shocking how often immigrants fall victim to immigration scams by people who pretend to be attorneys, but who are in fact only notaries.
Notaries who practice law illegally tend to take advantage of those who live in immigrant communities in the U.S. For thousands of dollars, they often promise fast results that neither they nor the best immigration attorney could ever hope to achieve.
However, it is still your responsibility to read every piece of information on your immigration application. Even if you do not understand English, it is your responsibility to have someone you trust translate it for you so that the information you provide is accurate and true. Make sure that your attorney provides you with a copy of every document filed on your behalf.
Once you sign the application or appear for an interview, you are responsible for the information provided. If the application is fraudulent and the ruse is discovered, it would be very difficult to prove that it was not you who committed the fraud or misrepresented the information.
Second: Make sure that the attorney is experienced in immigration law.
You would not go to a neurologist to treat stomach pains. The same logic extends to attorneys.
Third: Make sure you find an attorney whose services you can afford.
It is a common misconception that attorneys care excessively about making money. But they can become expensive, especially if you are not sure how long you might need their services.
Thankfully, many nonprofit organizations provide free legal services to people living below the poverty line across the U.S. (Many fine attorneys in the private sector also work with low-income clients.) You can refer to the federal poverty guidelines listed on Form I-864P. Just be aware that nonprofits in different states might adhere to slightly different guidelines.
It is also critical to avoid becoming a public burden or charge; this means you can not risk spending all of your savings on an attorney. The Trump Administration is cracking down on current and future immigrants who pose a risk of becoming a financial burden on the government.
Immigration officers have a lot of influence over who gets to live in the United States.
If you live abroad and are applying for a visa, officers might deny your application because they believe you are at risk of becoming a burden. You do not have the right to appeal the decision.
The same discretion can be used within the U.S. Although immigrants have more rights once they are here, the responsibility is on them to prove that they will not become a burden.
Where to Find Free Immigration Legal Services
One big misconception is that “free attorneys” are bad attorneys; however, some of the best immigration attorneys in the country work for nonprofits. A quick Google search can provide you with a list of reputable nonprofits in each state.
I currently work for Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), which provides many types of legal and social services, including immigration law, family law, criminal law, disability, and aid with public benefits. The complete list of services can be found here.
The immigration law division is limited to representing clients who live in New Jersey and have family-based petitions and humanitarian applications such as those for asylum, Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self-petitions, and U and T visas.
In addition, immigration attorneys in the Detention and Deportation Defense Initiative represent immigrants who have been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and detained in New Jersey prisons.
If you live in New Jersey and wish to speak to an attorney, call the LSNJ hotline or complete an online intake application.