Why Dreamers Need Lawyers

8 Aug

Full disclosure, I’m a Dreamer. I’m also a full-time third-year law student. I work at an immigration law firm in Metropolitan Washington D.C. and I love my job.

Like many immigrants in the United States, my family and I were screwed over by immigration lawyers and school administrators, which left me without legal status in the United States. As such, I have an inherent dislike of immigration lawyers as there are many bad ones in the profession. At the same time, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some really great immigration lawyers who’ve helped me out on innumerable occasions.

As such, I have to come out strong against several politicians and non-profits who are spreading the dangerous and irresponsible messaging that Dreamers do not need lawyers for the new deferred action process starting on August 15. I’d strongly advise my fellow Dreamers to get a competent immigration attorney to draw them an immigration history chart to ascertain precisely what benefits they could be eligible for now and in the near future. Not doing so, would be highly irresponsible. Laura Lichter, President of the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association (AILA) does a great job of telling us why we need lawyers, but I have a few more reasons to add.

First, since June 15 2012, dozens of Dreamers have walked into our immigration law firm. Close to half of them actually qualify for better relief than deferred action. We’ve had lawful permanent residents consult with us not knowing they were in fact, lawful permanent residents. We’ve had cases of people who would not qualify for deferred action but are eligible for special immigrant juvenile status, and hence, a green card. We’ve had cases of people who’ve been victims of serious crimes and persecution, who would qualify for asylum and withholding in the U.S., and some who would qualify for U-Visas. We even had a case of a Dreamer who was actually a U.S. citizen because his dad had naturalized as a minor — he just did not know that he automatically became a U.S. citizen. And we’ve many Dreamers, including myself, who are eligible for green-cards through non-LPR cancellation of removal in immigration court.

Now most Dreamers are probably just eligible for deferred action. However, I don’t think it hurts to see an immigration lawyer, especially if you may be eligible to adjust your status to that of a lawful permanent resident. It also does not hurt to see an immigration attorney especially if you have crimes or convictions on your record. Sometimes, a lawyer can get you post-conviction relief, and USCIS will most likely honor that.

Second, in most cases, local non-profits do not have the legal expertise to answer tough legal immigration questions regarding legal terms like continuous presence, unlawful presence, advance parole in individual cases. For the most part, they have never actually practiced immigration law. Legal help provided at workshops or clinics is often cursory and you need an immigration lawyer to devote more than 30 minutes to your case. Besides lack of legal expertise, there is also no way that non-profits can accommodate 1.76 million applicants. In such cases, private immigration attorneys are crucial for Dreamers to get expert advise and help.

Third, not all Dreamers are college-educated with the inherent ability to fill out immigration forms (and even college-educated Dreamers make mistakes). We could fill out forms incorrectly, which could get us a denial notice, with no appeal process. In some cases, checking the wrong box could result in a notice to appear in immigration court proceedings. For the most part, we all have only one shot at doing this right. We may as well make sure that several people look at our application before it is filed and that we have strong and highly experienced advocates to follow-up with USCIS if anything goes wrong.

And finally, regardless of what USCIS says about keeping your information private and confidential, experienced immigration professionals know that ICE will not hesitate to use your information against you if they ever initiate removal proceedings. We are talking about an agency and administration that has deported more people than ever before. During conference calls with USCIS, Director Mayorkas has made it clear that those with potentially negative immigration histories, including fraud and crimes, would be referred to ICE for removal proceedings. I don’t want to discourage anyone from applying by sounding an alarm — but this is not the easy, benevolent process that some people are painting it to be.

Application fees are $465. Reasonable private immigration attorney costs should be in the range of $500-$2000, not counting any fees and depending on the complexity of the case. Immigration attorneys would need to open your files, input your information into the system, ascertain what benefits you are eligible for, get their paralegals fill several forms for you, get certified copies of your court records in some cases, gather several hundred pages of documents proving your identity and proof of presence, make copies and send them in for you. They would need to follow-up with USCIS for any notice to deny or request for further evidence. All of this requires significant time and effort, even in the most compelling cases.

It is worth your pesos to make sure that your case is handled by competent professionals and not those who may not have the legal expertise that is required to handle your case or tell you that you actually qualify for more than just deferred action. Do yourself a favor and get yourself the best advocate you can afford. It will be well worth it.  If you truly can not afford a private lawyer, remember that some of the best immigration attorneys are not at firms, but at non-profits that dedicate the time and resources to running a first-class immigration shop.

11 Responses to “Why Dreamers Need Lawyers”

  1. Simon August 8, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    As a non-profit lawyer, I will remind you that many of us were in private practice before, but got tired of hassling clients for fees. So before you go holding up private practice attorneys as the gold standard, remember that there are lots of non-profit lawyers who do just as good of a job or better. Also, when it comes to humanitarian forms of relief, non-profit attorneys may have a lot more experience with that particular form of relief than private attorneys.

    • Michelle August 8, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

      Much agree with you, Simon! I think and hope that I provide quality legal services on a daily basis or else I should get out of this business. 😉 And, we non-profit attorneys often take on cases that private attorneys won’t, like motions to suppress.

  2. Thanks for writing this and sharing the importance of seeking qualified legal assistance. Immigration law is complex and, as you state, Deferred Action may not be the only option for some young people.

    However, I disagree with your assertion that nonprofit organizations cannot provide high quality legal services. CLINIC’s network of over 200 nonprofit legal service providers and many others across the country are experienced, well-trained, and ready to support Dreamers. Individuals seeking legal assistance (from attorneys or Accredited Representatives authorized to practice immigration law by the Department of Justice) should ask questions about the provider’s qualifications before agreeing to representation.

    I wish that every individual would be able to sit down for a one-on-one consultation with a representative. But as you say, there are 1.76 million applicants to be served. Workshops conducted by reliable, quality organizations have proven to be an effective way to help meet the needs of large numbers of applicants. Again, potential applicants should check to make sure that an application prepared at a workshop is reviewed by a qualified legal representative. For-profit and nonprofit representatives will have to work together to meet the needs of this large group of potential applicants, as we have done in the past.

    • Michelle August 8, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

      I think she meant non-profits that do not have an Immigration Legal Services program or immigration attorneys on staff given this line: “For the most part, they have never actually practiced immigration law.” Those of us in the non-profit immigration legal services world practice immigration law on a daily basis so that is not us. But, I think Allison is right that this point should be clearer so as not to exclude say Catholic Charities and other reputable organizations with an immigration legal services program. My colleagues are some of the best attorneys I know and Rex Chen at CC of Newark is litigation master who presents at every AILA annual conference. Thanks, Allison!

      • prernaplal August 8, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

        True this. I’m a Board Director of a national non-profit that provides legal services. Obviously, I’m not implying that ALL non-profit lawyers are bad. Besides my work environment, I also work with national experts in LGBT immigration law. My comments were specifically directed towards those non-profits who have been telling Dreamers that they do not need lawyers. And to be fair, it may have ruffled some wrong feathers but it riled up the right people — Senator Durbin has taken down his irresponsible video and hopefully, Gutierrez listens and does the same.

  3. andresbenach August 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    Thanks for pointing this out. We will turn tail on this faster than Michael Phelps had to apologize for being photographed with a bong. We have amended our original post to state the obvious: there are outstanding lawyers and accredited representatives at non-profits. We are friends with many of them and admire them as well. We meant no hard feelings. As you know, there are good lawyers and bad lawyers and there are good non-profits and bad non-profits. We are just trying to say: choose wisely!

    • Michelle August 8, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

      Thanks, Andres!

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How Can I Prepare for Immigration Reform? | Lifted Lamp - March 12, 2013

    […] Not every undocumented immigrant will need an attorney to take advantage of a pathway to citizenship. But many will. And it can be hard to know whether one needs to hire an attorney unless one talks to an attorney. In fact, as occurred in many consultations involving prospective DACA applicants, one might discover that they were already eligible for legal status through another route. […]

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