How do I choose the best person to handle my immigration case?

"We paid her thousands and gave her all of our documents.  Then she disappeared.  We don't even know if she sent in an application." I've heard this story so many times, but it still makes my heart break. Good people who trusted the wrong person with their case and have now lost thousands of dollars or have no possibility of legalizing, all because of bad representation or bad legal advice.


⦁    HOW DO I KNOW IF SOMEONE IS REALLY A LAWYER (IN GOOD STANDING)?


Every state maintains a list of the lawyers who are currently in active good standing. They also maintain records of accusations and disciplinary action taken. In Utah, you can do a simple search on the bar website to find out if a person is an lawyer in good standing here. Just type in the name and look at the result. Specifically for immigration matters, the Board of Immigration Appeals also posts a list of disciplined and suspended lawyers and accredited representatives here.  


Utah also has a special kind of person called an Immigration Consultant. Consultants complete government application forms, translate forms or your answer to a question on a form, obtain supporting documents for an application, or submit applications on a person's behalf. A person who is providing these services and is not a licensed lawyer or BIA accredited representative is required to register with the Utah Division of Consumer Protection. If the person you are meeting with is performing one of these services and is not registered, that person is breaking the law. UCA 13-49-201(1)(b). First, you should report that person here. Second, don't trust someone who is breaking the law to represent you in a legal matter. It's not a good start.


⦁    WHAT'S SO BAD ABOUT USING A NOTARIO?


Licensed lawyers and registered immigration consultants have invested a lot of time and money into those titles. They place a lot of value on maintaining those titles and their reputations. Lawyers are overseen by a licensing authority called the Bar Association. Registered immigration consultants are overseen by the Utah Division of Consumer Protection. In either case, if they lie to you or commit malpractice, there are consequences to them personally and professionally. Not so with a notario. A notario can take your money and run.

I met Lourdes (the name has been changed) at a clinic a few weeks ago. She had been arrested at the border when she asked for asylum. She was eventually released on a bond, but still had a lengthy court battle ahead of her. She and her family had paid someone thousands to help her with the bond and with changing her court from Texas where she had crossed the border to Utah where she now lived. She had given that person all of her original documents proving her asylum claim. And then one day Lourdes called and the phone was disconnected. She didn't know whether her case had really been moved to Utah and she didn't know how she was going to get those documents back. A licensed attorney can always be tracked through the State Bar Association. But the person that Lourdes paid was now long gone with both her money and her documents.


Lastly, licensed lawyers have special obligations to competently represent a person. That means that the advice and services they provide must rise to a certain level of quality. If their performance does not meet those quality standards, they could lose their license. Because of those quality standards and the severity of the consequence for not meeting them, lawyers are more likely to do a good job on your case.


⦁    DO I NEED AN LAWYER?    


Now that you know more about the types of people who can represent you, let's talk about whether you really need someone's help. There are a few key indicators for needing the assistance of an experienced immigration lawyer. They are:

  • Criminal history (even a misdemeanor if it's for something other than a traffic violation)
  • Prior immigration applications (even a visa application that was denied)
  • Prior immigration contact (deports, questioning at border, arrest and release, etc.)
  • More than one entry to the United States, whether they were both lawful or not
  • Receiving a means-tested public benefit (Medicaid, WIC, CHIP, etc.)
  • Upcoming deadline (i.e. need work authorization by a particular date, losing a benefit, child is turning 21, etc.)

Having one of these factors present in your case makes it more likely that there will be a particular obstacle or difficulty in your application. In the previous section I discussed an lawyer's obligation to perform to certain standards of quality. It is particularly in these situations listed above that you will want quality representation to be sure 1) that there is a way around the obstacle and 2) the way around it is legal and done correctly.


One quick point here as well.  lawyers make applications go more smoothly.  The do not (usually) make them go faster.  If there is an emergency situation, an lawyer is more likely to know how to deal with that emergency to expedite a case if necessary.  But it's not guaranteed.


⦁    How do I know who I should trust with my case?


As with many things in life, the answer is to just ask. Ask how much experience the person has. Ask whether they've handled similar cases. Ask about the likelihood of success on your case. Ask whether there are obstacles or problems. Ask about the case process. Be sure that the person is aware of every single step and fee that may occur in your case and how long the processing will take for each step. You can also look at Avvo, Martindale-Hubbell, LinkedIn, and other professional websites to see if the person has good reviews or endorsements for immigration matters. 


But ultimately, trust your gut. If you feel like the person you met with doesn't have the right experience or training, go somewhere else. It is worth another consultation fee to find a person that you trust rather than wasting money and time and worry on someone that you don't.  Immigrant Legal Services is staffed by four licensed attorneys. We understand the need for competent representation and trust. Cases are not handled by paralegals, assistants, or accredited representatives. Contact us for a consultation at admin@ilsutah.org or by phone at 801-888-9186.

Kate Barber
05.04.2016