Immigration lawyers are not, in general, the most highly paid of lawyers. They know that their clients often have difficulty obtaining so much as the right to work in the U.S., and adjust their fees accordingly. In fact, a tradition has developed in which many of them charge flat fees for services, rather than an hourly rate. That means that, even if they spend hours trying to convince the immigration authorities that you really did send the check, or clear up some other issue central to your case, you won't pay extra for it.
How High Are the Flat Rates?
You may have to pay an initial consultation fee as well as a fee for the lawyer’s services. The initial consultation fee is usually around $100. Some good lawyers provide free consultations. But many have found that they can’t afford to spend a lot of their time this way, since many immigrants have no visa or remedy available to them, which means the lawyer gets no work after the initial consultation. Be ready to pay a reasonable fee for your initial consultation, but do not sign any contracts for further services until you feel sure that you’ve found the right attorney. This usually requires consulting with at least two or three lawyers first.
For green card applications or other services, the fees will vary by region of the United States. But at least you can compare prices within your area. In Northern California, for example, the current range for a basic fiancé visa is between $700 and $2,000, and a marriage-based application runs from around $800 to $3,000.
If the lawyer quotes an hourly rate instead, expect to pay between $100 and $350 per hour.
The lawyers who charge the highest rates aren’t always the best ones, though in some cases it does mean they have become so well-established that they can charge more. And immigration law is a field where experience counts -- this field is so complicated that it takes years to understand the ins and out. Nevertheless, those who charge less may be keeping their overhead low, still making their name in the business (okay to use for a simple case), or philosophically opposed to charging high fees.
Then again, a surprisingly low fee may be a sign that the supposed lawyer really isn’t one. Always check the lawyer's bar membership, and don't hire a "notario," "consultant," or other pretender.
What If You Really Can't Pay?
If the lawyers' fees are beyond your ability to pay, but you still need legal help, you have a number of options. One is to ask the lawyer to split the work with you. Using this arrangement, the lawyer would handle discrete tasks only, at the hourly rate: perhaps consult with you about the issue causing you difficulty, review a document, or attend an interview. You would handle the follow-up or rote work, such as filling out the application forms and translating or writing documents, statements, letters, and more.
Be warned, however: While many lawyers can be hired to give you advice on an hourly basis, most will not want to get into a mixed arrangement unless they are sure they won’t have to clean up anything you might do wrong. For example, a lawyer might not agree to represent you in a USCIS interview if the lawyer wasn’t hired to review your forms and documents before you submitted them to USCIS.
Another option is to look for a nonprofit organization that helps people with family visa cases. A few provide free services, while most charge reduced rates. But don’t get your hopes too high. The U.S. government refused to give any grant funding to organizations that provide services to undocumented immigrants, which means that most nonprofits depend on private sources of income, and are perpetually low on funds. The result is that, however much they might wish they could help, many nonprofits have long backlogs of cases and may not be able to accept your case at all.