Immigration Lawyers, Accredited Representatives, and Paralegals
The first thing to know about immigration lawyers (also referred to as "immigration attorneys") is that the title, in itself, is meaningless since any lawyer who is a member of any state bar in the United States can claim to be an "Immigration Lawyer" -- even if the lawyer has never studied immigration law and knows nothing about immigration law. Any member of any state bar is entitled to represent clients in their applications to the USCIS, and is permitted to sign up to represent clients in immigration court.
However, there are extremely experienced and well-qualified immigration attorneys who have extensive experience in defending clients in immigration court and in filing appeals in federal courts. There are situations--especially for clients facing deportation in immigration court-where it may be worthwhile raising the money to hire one of these expert lawyers if a defendant has a difficult, but not impossible-to-win case. (When the case against deportation is clear, the services of a pro bono lawyer may be sufficient.)
The most important thing is for an immigrant in need of legal services to be able to distinguish between the many mediocre self-styled "immigration attorneys" and the truly experienced and highly competent ones. To help our clients when they seek a second opinion or need defense in immigration court, IMPORTA maintains a list of outstanding immigration attorneys with an emphasis on those who are very experienced in removal defense. Most are located in Los Angeles near the immigration court. In general, these lawyers fees will be lower for defense in immigration court than fees of lawyers with offices outside of Los Angeles.
An important value of these experienced lawyers is that they generally offer consultations with case analyses for $100 to $200. There is an advantage for an immigrant first having a consultation with an Accredited Representative (at IMPORTA or Immigrant Hope in Santa Barbara County), since many immigration lawyers will ask for a retainer of about $1,000 to do a preliminary investigation before giving an opinion on a case. An Accredited Representative can do a complete case analysis and also investigate to see if the immigrant has any criminal or immigration history that may adversely affect his or her case without charge or for a modest fee. The client can take this information to a recommended immigration attorney who can use the preliminary analysis and evidence gathered to give a a informed opinion on the client's possibility of success without having to pay the lawyer a large retainer fee.
Top-quality immigration lawyers who work for large non-profits such as CLINIC or the Immigration Legal Resource Center (ILRC) provide a very valuable educational resource for IMPORTA's Accredited Representatives and paralegal staff. IMPORTA's Accredited Representatives also have direct access to individual case consultations with lawyers from both CLINIC and ILRC.
Accredited Representatives must undergo many hours of formal training in immigration law each year, and Accreditation must be renewed every three years at which time a complete evaluation is made of the accredited representative's training and ethics. Since Accredited Representatives are salaried employees of a non-profit organization they have no monetary incentive to file cases that are questionable or poorly prepared. In addition, almost all Recognized non-profit
organizations work closely with experienced immigration lawyers associated with large organizations such as CLINIC, the largest legal immigration network in the United States with a staff of 16 full-time immigration attorneys, all specialists in one or another area of immigration law. IMP(ORTA's Accredited Representatives regular consult with CLINIC lawyers about complex cases, especially now with the many anti-immigrant changes that were made by the Trump Administration.
In Santa Barbara County, Accredited Representatives from IMPORTA and Immigrant Hope meet on a regular basis to discuss recent changes in government immigration policies as well as difficult cases.
Lawyers and Accredited Representatives are like ship captains who are responsible for safely guiding the ship to its destination, but who depend on a competent and dedicated crew for success. Similarly, lawyers and Accredited Representatives depend on the work of a skilled paralegal staff to do much of the work required to successfully bring a case to a successful conclusion. The work of an immigration paralegal is different in many respects from the work of a normal legal paralegal due to the unique character of immigration law. IMPORTA's immigration paralegals work under the supervision of the Accredited Representative who represents the client in the case. The paralegal is required to gather detailed information from the client (generally in Spanish), ensure that the client gathers needed documents in a timely manner, then provide certified translations of documents in Spanish, carefully enter information into application forms, all the while keeping the Accredited Representative advised of all questions and other issues. IMPORTA's paralegals also prepare and submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to various agencies of the Department of Homeland Security, take fingerprints for FBI record checks, and check the immigration court for any records of prior proceedings. All of IMPORTA's immigration paralegals are required to take training courses and all are encouraged to develop the experience and training to become Accredited Representatives. This "flat" organizational structure, which provides opportunities for all paralegals to achieve Accreditation, helps build the team spirit required for maximum efficiency while serving clients with warmth and understanding.