One of the most common questions an immigration attorney faces is why an applicant needs an attorney in the first place. Usually this is followed by some variation of, "It's just filling out forms, isn't it?"
Before one can even decide how to fill out the forms, an analysis must be made of an applicant's eligibility and of risk factors. Applying for something one doesn't qualify for can be the fastest way to get deported. Representing oneself as qualifying for a benefit that one doesn't qualify for can lead to a charge of fraud and possibly a permanent bar to immigrating. Immigration law is as bizarre as it is complex and ever-changing. The factors that determine eligibility or that can cause a problem often seem completely innocent in themselves, and a non-professional would never think twice about them. The year you were born, the year you entered the U.S., the number of times you entered, the way you entered, what was said at entry, the timing between entry and marriage, actions prior to entry, the country of origin, the state of current residence, previous applications filed by or for one's parents -- all these are things that can make a tremendous difference in how and whether a green card will be granted.
Last month alone, we met a woman whose friend had tried to help her file following the steps that had worked for her. As a result, the case was scheduled for a domestic interview when she was required to interview for abroad, and when she showed up to the interview in Los Angeles she was arrested. We also met a man who applied for citizenship not realizing that by divorcing his wife and remarrying a friend from his home country so soon after gaining residency he was flagging himself for a fraud investigation and ended up in removal proceedings instead of becoming a citizen. Another young man who has lived here since the age of 2 filed papers without realizing that his parents had made multiple misrepresentations on papers they filed for him during his childhood, all of which were charged against him when he tried to file for himself.
With the stakes so high, it is imperative that an applicant's entire history and profile be analyzed before determining a course of action.
Even once the proper process has been selected, the forms involve far more than lists of addresses and jobs. They contain many questions that require legal interpretation, some of which have ambiguous meanings and are the subject of ongoing lawsuits. Do you know if using the Driver's License of a U.S. citizen to buy alcohol count as a false claim to citizenship? Do you know if presentation of a counterfeit visitor's visa counts as an entry with inspection? When did your periods of unlawful presence as defined in INA 212(a)(9)(B) begin and end, and should your answer be affected by the amended decision in Carrillo de Palacios v. Holder? An answer based on "common sense" may be completely wrong and result in a finding of inadmissibility for fraud or a delay of years.
Even before our current climate of anti-immigration, USCIS was at best a convoluted and over-burdened bureaucracy with its own quirks and unstated rules. Only someone who routinely files dozens of applications in a month will know these unstated rules, the practices that while correct will be misunderstood, and the ways to make sure routinely missed factors are properly noticed. A simple oversight usually costs several months in delays. USCIS usually only gives one chance to respond to a request and then denies the case, requiring repayment of the whole filing fee -- and under new guidance announced in July 2018 --- often leading to an automatic commencement of removal proceedings.
Finally, USCIS is not the agency it was a few years ago. No longer a customer-service based organization (they even took those words out of their mission statement recently) they are now operating under an imperative to impede and even reverse the granting of immigration benefits, looking for any ground on which to deny a case and even routinely claiming that a document is missing when it is not. Many feel this is a deliberate tactic to frustrate and discourage potential applicants. Considering all that is at stake for the immigrant, it is nothing short of madness to walk into an encounter with a government official trusting that he has your best interests at heart and will treat you in a fair and legally proper manner. The government has nearly inexhaustible resources to investigate you and throw up legal challenges to the benefit you are seeking. They have thousands of attorneys working for them. You need one too.