As the old adage goes, "A little knowledge is a dangerous
thing." Immigration law is very complex, and is fraught with
opportunities for attorneys - and non-attorney practitioners - to
commit errors. At times, these errors can be attributed to the
cross-pollination, if you will, of immigration and other areas
(i.e. criminal and family law). This article aims to alert new
immigration practitioners about issues they may encounter and how
to approach them.
Start with something simple
The stakes in immigration are incredibly high. One mistake could
result in a client's removal (deportation) from the United States.
The effects of removal spread far beyond the affected individual,
as family members are faced with the difficulty of deciding whether
to stay in the United States or join the removed individual. Two
fairly straightforward processes for new immigration practitioners
are renewal of lawful permanent resident (LPR) status and
naturalization. The clients seeking assistance with these processes
have been in lawful status for a few years and as a result are
slightly less scrutinized thus contributing to the simplicity.
Reader beware: simple does not mean foolproof. Naturalization,
for instance, involves the completion of a 21-page form, which must
be attached to several pieces of evidence. Upon first glance, the
questions on the form are easy to follow. The seasoned immigration
practitioner will warn you that these questions carry with them a
long and tangled history that can prove detrimental to your
For example, one question on the naturalization application asks
for a list of the applicant's travel outside of the United States
within the five-year period preceding the application. Depending on
the amount of time the applicant spent outside of the United
States, she could be ineligible to naturalize and be forced to wait
an additional period of time prior to applying. The immigration
practitioner must, in such a case, be able to identify those cases
and advise the client to wait the appropriate time rather than
having to go through the process twice. The wrong response to other
questions on the naturalization application can have more severe
consequences, up to and including, removal and a permanent bar to
To eliminate some of the anxiety, new attorneys can get involved
with established pro bono projects such as Project Citizenship.
Project Citizenship (and other organizations) host naturalization
workshops where volunteers complete naturalization applications for
members of the community. These workshops provide new practitioners
with the opportunity to go through several of these applications
while resting assured that someone with more experience will review
it prior to being submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration
Understand your client's fears
Immigration clients, at times, feel disillusioned by the way our
government has treated them. Undoubtedly, some of this feeling is
compounded by the rhetoric we hear daily on the news (generally
from the likes of Donald Trump). But even when their experiences
are not shaped by the vitriol in the media, clients experience fear
and confusion when seeking immigration relief.
Lawyers need to be able to penetrate through that fear and
establish a trusting relationship allowing the client to be
completely honest and forthcoming. In reality, attorneys must build
trust with every client. Still, the cultural nuances of immigration
practice make trust building particularly unique.
At a minimum, attorneys should become familiar with the culture
of the clients they represent. The tone of the intake should be
geared toward each client's sensitivities. Intakes can prove far
more fruitful if not handled as a question and answer session.
Focus instead on the services you can provide and how you can help
the client get the desired relief. Minutiae can be gathered later
in the process. This approach will leave clients with the sense
that the attorney cares about their legal issues and respects their
Know when and how to say 'no'
One of the more difficult tasks I have encountered in my
immigration practice is learning when to say "no." Immigration
clients have compelling stories, and as practitioners we want to
help them. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is both
comprehensive and limited in its reach, which, unfortunately, means
that not every client has a ground for relief available.
The following (oversimplified) dialogue is common in immigration
intakes: "I have been in the United States without documentation
for the past 25 years. I entered without inspection; I am tired of
living in the shadows, and all I want is to have some sort of work
permit." These stories are so pervasive that our instinct is to
help whatever way we can. It is imperative to understand that
charging a client legal fees for something we cannot, in fact,
accomplish is unethical and can leave clients in worse positions
than they began. In practice, the attorney should take the client's
information and promise to call the client back should a ground for
relief become available at a future date.
Decide how you will structure your fees
Fee structure is fear-inducing, particularly early in practice.
I am no expert; I was admitted to practice in the commonwealth in
June of this year. Gauging the breakeven point for my cases has
proven difficult. Thus, the fee-setting conundrum.
In order to eliminate some of the uncertainty, I have structured
my immigration practice as a flat fee practice. I keep track of the
amount of time I spend on each matter as a barometer for whether my
fees are too high or too low. Because I am careful when setting my
fees, when a client simply does not want to pay the flat fee
charged, I decline representation. For those clients who cannot
afford the fee, I analyze whether I can accept the matter on a pro
bono or partial pro bono basis. If it makes economic sense, I take
it; if it does not, I refer the client to other providers within
the community who may be able to provide more affordable
Know the landscape and sell yourself
Immigration clients are savvy. They communicate with others
within immigrant communities, they talk about the merits of their
cases with each other, and they price shop. Price shopping can lead
clients to seek the services of unlicensed individuals ("notarios")
and non-attorney practitioners who are accredited by the Board of
Immigration Appeals (BIA).
As an immigration practitioner, you'll need to learn to deal
with this competition. Notarios and non-attorney practitioners
alike will often promise to do the same work as an attorney for a
portion of the price. Notarios, however, will often leave their
clients in worse situations due to shoddy work. Therefore, the
client may eventually end up having to pay an attorney much more
than the initial quote to resolve the issue the notario created;
make sure your client is aware of that possibility and use the
opportunity to sell your credentials.
Not all non-attorney practitioners can be painted with the same
brush though. Many religious institutions are licensed by the BIA
to represent individuals in immigration proceedings. These
institutions fill the gap by providing low-cost or pro bono
services to those individuals in the community who are most in need
of assistance. To that end, these institutions can be our allies;
they can recognize when cases go beyond their level of expertise
and can become a plentiful referral source.
Ultimately, immigration work is both challenging and rewarding.
Receiving good news for immigration clients is a great source of
pride for the immigration practitioner. Approach immigration
practice carefully, start with the basics and build from there.
Most importantly, know when to look to your mentors for