How to Avoid a Sleazy Immigration Lawyer

If you need an immigration lawyer, you need a good one. Here's how to spot the ones to steer clear of.

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Hiring an immigration lawyer can be the best thing you do for your chances of successfully obtaining a U.S. visa, green card, or other immigration benefit -- if you get the right lawyer.

There are good and bad immigration ones out there. Some of the good ones are incredibly committed to immigrants' rights and justice, and put in long hours helping you deal with a government bureaucracy that's huge, backlogged, and often just plain difficult. Immigration law isn't a way to get rich, either -- the typical clientele can’t pay high fees, in many cases having no right to work in the U.S. at all.

The bad immigration lawyers, however, are trouble—and there are more than a few of them. Their modus operandi is usually to try to do a high-volume business, bringing in lots of new clients and then not doing much for them except perhaps churning out a few irrelevant government forms. Such lawyers can get clients into deep trouble by overlooking critical issues in their cases or failing to submit applications or court materials by the approrpriate deadline. But the one thing they never seem to forget is to charge a lot of money upfront for their supposed help.

Some signs to watch for are:

The lawyer approaches you in a USCIS office or other public location and tries to solicit your business. This is not only against the lawyers’ rules of professional ethics, but no competent lawyer ever needs to find clients this way.

The lawyer makes big promises, such as “I guarantee I’ll win your case,” or “I’ve got a special contact that will put your application at the front of the line.” The U.S. government is in ultimate control of your application, and any lawyer who implies they have special powers is either lying or may be involved in something you don’t want to be a part of.

The lawyer has a very fancy office and wears a lot of flashy gold jewelry. A fancy office or a $2,000 outfit aren’t necessarily signs of a lawyer’s success at winning cases. These trappings may instead be signs that the lawyer charges high fees and counts on impressing clients with clothing rather than results.

The lawyer encourages you to lie on your application. This is a tricky area. On the one hand, a good lawyer can assist you in learning what information you don’t want to needlessly offer up, and can help you present the truth in the best light possible. But a lawyer who coaches you to lie—for example, by telling you to pretend you lost your passport and visa when in fact you entered the United States illegally—isn’t ethical. There’s every chance that USCIS knows the lawyer’s reputation and will scrutinize your application harder because of it.

You might think that the really bad lawyers would be out of business by now, but that isn’t the case. Sad to say, neither the attorney bar associations nor the courts nor even the police take much interest in going after people who prey on immigrants. Occasionally, nonprofits devoted to immigrants’ rights will attempt to get the enforcement community interested in taking action. Unfortunately, this threat of official scrutiny isn’t much of a deterrent.

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TIP

If you are the victim of an unscrupulous lawyer, complain! Law enforcement won’t go after lawyers who prey on immigrants until there is enough community pressure. If a lawyer, or someone pretending to be a lawyer, pulls something unethical on you, report it to the state and local bar association and the local District Attorney’s office. Ask your local nonprofits if anyone else in your area is collecting such information.

Is This Person Even a Lawyer?

Because much of immigration law involves filling in forms, people assume it’s easy. They’re dead wrong. Be careful about whom you consult with or hand your case over to. Unless the person shows you certification that they are a lawyer or an “accredited representative,” or a paralegal working under the direct training and supervision of a lawyer, he or she should be thought of as a typist, and nothing more. (An accredited representative is a nonlawyer who has received training from a lawyer and been recognized by USCIS as qualified to prepare USCIS applications and represent clients in court.) Do not be fooled by fancy names such as “immigration consultant” or “notary public.” These people do not have a law degree. To check on whether someone is really a lawyer, ask for their Bar Number and call the state bar association.

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