There is no situation which absolutely requires a private immigration lawyer. Be careful not to misread that. I didn't say that immigration lawyers aren't valuable; they just aren't required.
The fact is that hiring an immigration attorney is a matter of preference. As an immigration attorney myself, I can safely say that some immigration matters probably do not need the attention of an immigration attorney. If an individual needs to renew her green card, there's a form for that that can easily be found on USCIS's web site, and she can fill it out herself and pay the fee. It's that simple. Don't waste your money on an immigration attorney to do this for you.
Other immigration matters, while seemingly straightforward to the untrained eye, can turn into an immigrant's worst nightmare if she omits something in her paperwork or admits something that gets her into immigration trouble that she wouldn't have otherwise been in. For example, an individual with a criminal record (such as a conviction based upon shoplifting a pack of gum five years ago!) who applies for naturalization could be put into removal proceedings. Please don't let that happen to you.
Then there are the incredibly difficult immigration matters that individuals usually have absolutely no idea how to handle, such as submitting complicated waiver applications, navigating all the different types of employment-based visa categories, or (heaven forbid) being placed in removal proceedings which necessitates at least several hearings in Immigration Court.
That being said, there are several very good reasons why people hire immigration lawyers:
(1) Immigration law is complex. In 2005, the Congressional Research Service reported: "The statutory scheme defining and delimiting the rights of aliens is exceedingly complex. Courts and commentators have stated that the Immigration and Nationality Act resembles 'King Mino's labyrinth in ancient Crete,' and is 'second only to the Internal Revenue Code in complexity.'
Finding someone who can navigate the complicated immigration laws can mean the difference between being able to live and work in the U.S. and being forced to leave. Legacy INS Spokesperson Karen Kraushaar stated that "immigration law is a mystery and a mastery of obfuscation, and the lawyers who can figure it out are worth their weight in gold."
There are, however, some immigration attorneys who either cannot or at least have not yet figured it out. In a law review article written by Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and Northwestern University Law Professor Albert Yoon, it is noted that a panel of judges were asked which area of the law had the lowest quality lawyers. The judges "agreed that immigration law was the area in which the quality of representation was lowest."
The lesson from all of this? Yes, immigration law is complex, but it is important to find an immigration attorney who can figure it out.
(2) Immigration lawyers can fend off future immigration problems. Because of the complexity of immigration law, it's difficult for individuals attempting to handle an immigration case by themselves to get up to speed on the immigration laws. This is especially important if time is running against you, which it almost always is in immigration matters. Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has stated in the context of detained immigrants that "the need for legal representation for immigrants has grown so acute and the consequences so drastic that something must be done." If immigration attorneys are useless, then a U.S. Supreme Court Justice would never have made such a remark.
People sometimes think they do not need an immigration attorney because they don't have any immigration problems. For a lot of people, that may be true. But for some people, it's not that they don't have immigration problems, but it's that they don't know that they have immigration problems. "Oh? You mean that if I leave the U.S. right now I won't be able to come back for 10 years?" Yes, I am sorry. If that individual had seen an immigration attorney a year ago, there may have been something the attorney would have advised in order to prevent her current immigration predicament. Not seeing an attorney when in doubt can result in a lot of "could have, would have, should have" statements.
(3) Immigration lawyers do it better (statistically speaking). Statistics can be dubious and misleading, so I don't like using them lightly. However, the statistics that I am about to share with you are verifiable and are worth your attention. Lawyers cannot guarantee a successful outcome in any case. In fact, lawyers should specifically say to every new client that "I cannot guarantee a successful outcome in your case." The lawyer can then offer these statistics:
In the context of removal proceedings (where the immigrant is not detained):
- The immigrant is successful in immigration court 74% of the time when represented by a lawyer;
- The immigrant is successful in immigration court 13% of the time when NOT represented by a lawyer.
In the context of asylum cases:
- Out of 37,266 affirmative asylum cases, 36.8 percent of claimants who were represented were granted asylum, compared to 4.0 percent who were not represented;
- Out of 16,180 defensive asylum cases, 25.9 percent of claimants who were represented were granted asylum, compared to 7.4 percent who were not represented.
These statistics are not meant to be used as a sales pitch to a client wondering whether or not she should hire an immigration lawyer, or whether to hire you or I as her lawyer. Rather, they are meant to provide a wake-up call to the client, in essence saying, "Immigration law is complex. You can do this on your own or you can hire a lawyer to guide you." If staying in the U.S. is important to the client, the choice is clear.
Immigration lawyers do much more than simply fill out immigration forms. We can spot immigration problems before they occur, and advise a client accordingly. When we believe the client does not have a good case, we tell them, and suggest ways in order to build a stronger case. When we are forced to fight the government, we prepare legal briefs in support of our arguments and make appearances in immigration and consular officers with our clients. We offer strategies for successful outcomes at immigration interviews, and inform clients of potential pitfalls to avoid at these interviews. As you can see, all the evidence supports the case that immigration lawyers are invaluable.