Navigating the complex immigration laws of the United States can be challenging for anyone. Although some of the simpler types of immigration applications can be handled on your own if your case presents no complications, it's not always easy to tell what represents a true complication. Therefore, receiving competent legal advice from a licensed attorney can be important at every step. This is especially true in removal proceedings, when you are not only navigating the immigration laws but dealing with formal courtroom procedures and an opposing attorney who represents the U.S. government, and whose primary aim is seemingly to get you deported.
The expense involved, however, leads many non-citizens to go without an attorney. In this article, we'll look at what the possibilities are for finding a free (pro bono) or low-cost attorney.
Hiring an experienced immigration attorney is hugely important if you are facing removal from the United States. (You'll usually know because you've been arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or "ICE," or receive a document called a "Notice to Appear" or "NTA.") Even though you might not be a U.S. citizen, you still have a right to defend your right to remain in the United States.
There are many reasons the U.S. government can attempt to remove a foreign national from the U.S.—some might be based on criminal conduct, others on how they entered the U.S.—but it is important that you understand why you are being removed and whether the reasons for removal are correct.
Even if the government is correct in its allegations and you are removable from the United States, there could be applications you can file to overcome this. Some people in removal proceedings are, for example able to present a case for asylum or for family-based green card—and if successful, emerge from the proceedings with the right to remain in the U.S. and even obtain permanent residence.
See, for example, Possible Defenses to Deportation of an Undocumented Alien.
An experienced immigration attorney will be able to review the allegations against you and identify forms of relief you might be eligible for, and then help you apply and convince the judge to grant it.
Unlike in the U.S. criminal justice system, the U.S. government will not provide an attorney for you at its expense. Therefore, you are on your own in finding and paying for an attorney.
It's probably worth calling around and consulting with lawyers who have been recommended to you. Although you might need to pay some initial consultation fees (often around $150), that will give you a sense of whether you have a case worth pursuing and how much an attorney is likely to charge you. It could be less than you expect—immigration attorneys tend to charge lower hourly rates than other lawyers, in consideration of their clients' limited financial resources. And they rarely make clients pay the whole amount up front.
If you definitely do not have the resources to pay for an attorney, however, you need to find one who will represent you pro bono (for free) or at a reduced cost.
The best place to search for a pro bono immigration attorney is on the U.S. Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) website, at the page called Find Legal Representation. There, you will be able to access a list of free or low-cost legal service providers, sorted by state.
The EOIR pro bono attorney list provides contact information for both private attorneys and nonprofit organizations. Read the notes on this list carefully, because not all attorneys or organizations named are willing to take every type of case. Some limit their pro bono cases to a particular subject matter or clientele. For example, some pro bono attorneys will not represent a client seeking asylum, while others might take only clients who are seeking asylum.
If you are not sure whether you fit into the specific category of client the attorney takes, you can contact the attorney to find out, but do not be discouraged if the attorney is ultimately unable to take your case. Chances are, that attorney will be able to recommend another attorney who might be better suited to your case. If not, you can try another attorney or organization on the list.
There is a great demand for pro bono immigration legal assistance, so even when you do find an attorney who handles your type of case, the attorney might already have a full caseload and turn you down. Start your search for a pro bono attorney as soon as possible, so that you are not left without competent legal assistance at your next court hearing.
The EOIR list of pro bono attorneys is also available in all immigration courts. If you find yourself at your first court hearing without an attorney, the Immigration Judge (IJ) should provide you with a copy. If a copy is not in the courtroom, do not be shy about respectfully asking the IJ or the judge's assistant where to get one.
There are other attorneys who can offer pro bono legal services who might not be included on the EOIR list. You can contact the bar association (the professional association for attorneys) in your state, for starters.
If you happen to know an attorney who is not advertised as a pro bono attorney, do not be afraid to ask if they might be able to take your case on a pro bono basis or whether the attorney offers a sliding-scale fee for low-income clients. Every attorney in the U.S. is encouraged to provide some pro bono services during the course of practice. An attorney who happens to have some time and resources available might just be able to help you.
In order to save money, many non-citizens turn to immigration "consultants," "assistants," or (if you're a Spanish speaker) "notarios." These people are not licensed to practice law in the United States. While some might mean well, others are frauds. Getting help from an unlicensed, inexperienced person (unless that person is assisting and supervised by a qualified attorney) could hurt your case and end up costing you more money in the end to fix the problem. Learn more about the risks.