When Do You Need an Immigration Lawyer?

There are numerous situation in which you’ll need an immigration lawyer’s help--or will save yourself a lot of time and frustration by getting it.

By , J.D. University of Washington School of Law
Updated 5/15/2024
You are not required to have a lawyer when applying for an immigrant visa or green card in the United States or overseas. If you have a straightforward case, are clearly eligible for the benefit you seek, and have no record of crimes or negative run-ins with U.S. immigration authorities, you can potentially proceed all the way to gaining U.S. immigration benefits without a lawyer.
In fact, if you are overseas, lawyers cannot attend interviews at U.S. consulates or embassies with you, though they are allowed to prepare the paperwork and have follow-up communications with the consulates.
However, there are numerous situations in which you will need a lawyer's help—or will save yourself a lot of time and frustration by getting it. Immigration law is notoriously, insanely complicated, and it's run by a government bureaucracy that receives less oversight and public scrutiny than you might expect. So, let's look at some of the most likely situations where it's time to find a good lawyer.

Hire a Lawyer If You Can't Figure Out Your Immigration Options

Let's say that you are a skilled worker, or an employer hoping to hire one. A worker could potentially qualify for multiple visas or types of green cards, but its difficult to know which is best, or fastest. An immigration attorney can help the employer and worker decide which visa best suits the employer's needs and the worker's qualifications.

Similar issues might come up in family-based or other types of visa situations. For instance, an engaged person might have a choice of getting married first, then entering the U.S. on an immigrant visa (with an immediate right to a green card) or getting a K-1 fiancé visa (which allows entry in order to get married and later apply for the green card through a procedure known as adjustment of status.) But which is faster or more advantageous depends on current government fees, procedures, and processing times, all of which a lawyer should be up to speed on.

Hire a Lawyer If You Are an Employer Looking to Hire Foreign-Born Workers

As a busy business owner, your time is likely not well spent puzzling out the details of immigration law. Let's say, for example, that you run a business and are hoping to sponsor a worker for a green card, which requires completing the labor certification (PERM) process. You will be expected to recruit candidates and place advertisements for the job. The advertisement process is complicated, as only certain types of ads are acceptable, the ads must contain specific language, and there are many time frames and deadlines involved. It's easy to get it wrong.

Additionally, the PERM application (ETA Form 9089) is complex. Employers find it difficult to understand how to complete this required form, and there's no room for even the smallest mistake. Almost any error will result in a denial; even it it's a one-cent difference in the worker's salary.

Many immigration attorneys are available to assist employers throughout the PERM process and other types of work-visa applications.

Hire a Lawyer If You Are in Immigration Court Proceedings

If you are or have ever been in immigration court deportation (removal) proceedings, run, don't walk to see a lawyer. If the proceedings are not yet finished or are on appeal, your entire immigration situation is in the power of the immigration court—and you will not get anywhere trying to use the same application procedures as people who are not in proceedings.

Even if the proceedings are over, you should ask a lawyer whether the outcome affects your current application. If, for example, there's an order of deportation in your file, you might be unable to move forward with a regular request for a green card or other benefit.

Hire a Lawyer if You Are Inadmissible to the U.S.

The most common legal issue encountered by would-be immigrants is the claim by USCIS or the consulate that they are inadmissible for one or more of the reasons listed in the article, Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.

Possible examples include having committed a crime or an immigration violation, previously lied to the U.S. government, or having any financial instability that might lead to you being considered a likely public charge. If you know that any of these grounds apply to you, it makes sense to get legal help before you begin the application process. The attorney can help you figure out whether a waiver (legal forgiveness) is available in your situation, and then help prepare the documents and written argument that will convince the U.S. government to grant you that waiver.

Hire a Lawyer If You Are Overwhelmed by the Paperwork

Even the simplest of U.S. immigration applications involves filling out forms and gathering documents in order to prove your eligibility, and you will most likely be asked to follow detailed instructions about doing so. Make a mistake, and you could find your application returned, delayed, or even rejected.

Immigration lawyers have dealt with this type of paperwork countless times before. They have both the knowledge and the streamlined systems with which to prepare the applications smoothly. They have computer programs in which they can enter your information and spit out the required forms in an instant. Hiring a lawyer can be well worth it for the peace of mind.

Hire a Lawyer If Running Into Bureaucratic Delays

Another circumstance that often drives people to lawyers is the failure of USCIS or the consulate to act on or approve the application, for reasons that have more to do with bureaucracy than law. For example, an applicant who moves from Los Angeles to San Francisco after filing an adjustment of status (green card) application might find that the application, which should be transferred to the San Francisco USCIS office, has instead disappeared into a bureaucratic black hole. Delays at the USCIS Service Centers are also far too common.

Lawyers do not have a lot of power in such circumstances. But at least the lawyer might have access to inside inquiry lines, where they (and only they) can ask about delayed or problematic cases. Even lawyers frequently have trouble getting answers to such inquiries, but it's often worth a try.



Whatever you do, don't rely on advice by USCIS information officers. Seriously. Would you want the receptionist in your doctor's office to tell you whether to get brain surgery? Asking USCIS information officers for advice about your case (beyond basic procedural advice such as where to file an application and what the fees are) is equally unsafe. The people who staff USCIS phone and information services are not experts. USCIS takes no responsibility if their advice is wrong—and won't treat your application with any more sympathy. Even following the advice of officials higher up in the agency might not be safe. Always get a second, preferably lawyer's opinion.

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