Millions of foreign nationals or non-U.S. citizens deal with various types of immigration issues each year, from getting a visa for a temporary visit to getting permission to live and work in the United States permanently. Although many go it alone, the complexity of U.S. immigration law and the organizational challenges of collecting all the paperwork mean many need help from an experienced U.S. immigration lawyer.
Of course, you should speak with more than one attorney before deciding which one is best suited to handling your case. Many offer free or low-cost initial consultations, during which you will fully discuss the substance of your case. This meeting can easily take an hour or more. The lawyer will then give you a sense of what next steps are advisable and how he or she can help you going forward.
Being prepared to meet with your prospective attorney is crucial to making the process go quickly and smoothly. Here's what you can do ahead of time:
- Prepare relevant information. The lawyer may have sent you a questionnaire or form asking for basic information like your full name, address, home telephone number, and employer's name and phone number. Fill it out as best you can and bring it with you to the meeting or, if the lawyer asks you to, mail it back before the meeting.
- If you didn't get a form to fill out, write down the same types of information. This way, you will have it handy if and when the attorney asks for it.
- Write down any dates or events important to your case. Include as many facts and details as you can remember and the names of anyone who may have information that may help your case, like witnesses or family members. If, for example, you fear persecution in your home country and plan to apply for asylum, write down what happened to you in the past, the specific dates of such occurrences, and the names of any known perpetrators or other victims.
- Make copies of important immigration-related documents. For instance, your birth certificate, visa applications you've completed, letters from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and any documents you were given when you entered the U.S. are all likely to be relevant or required as part of a future application. If you're not sure whether a document is important, make a copy and bring it anyway. Your lawyer knows what he or she needs and can use.
- If you have a criminal record, bring copies of all police and court documents. These are sure to be important in your immigration case, even if the case has been expunged or officially taken off your record. Do not even consider trying to conceal such information. Your fingerprints will no doubt be taken by U.S. immigration authorities somewhere along the way, at which time not only will the information come out, but you may lose your case based on having lied, and your lawyer will have to raise the fees to deal with this surprise.
- Organize everything in a folder or envelope. This helps make sure you don't lose or forget anything, and shows your attorney you're serious about your case and are willing and able to help.
- If necessary, make arrangements for time off work and childcare well in advance of your scheduled meeting. Also make arrangements for getting to and from the appointment. If you are late, the attorney may have to reschedule you, which could create delays in your case.
- Do some research on your own. Read through some of the immigration materials on sites like Lawyers.com and Nolo.com and learn as much as you can about the immigration laws pertinent to your case. It will help you and your lawyer have a meaningful discussion. Or, you might learn that there's no point in seeing a lawyer; for example, you'd like to apply for U.S. citizenship, but you have held a green card for only two years, which is never enough.
- Even if you already talked to the attorney by phone, write down any questions you haven't yet asked. You want to know what immigration benefits or remedies the attorney believes are open to you; what the chances of success in a case such as yours are; what the risks of going forward might be; what the reputation of the judge or examiners who will be handling your case is; what kind of experience the attorney has with immigration cases like yours; how long the attorney has been doing immigration work; how many attorneys within the law firm (if you're not talking to a solo practitioner) work on immigration cases; and how long will it most likely take to finish your case.
- If you're unsure about your English communication skills, arrange to have someone go to the meeting with you. Call the attorney ahead of time and ask whether someone can come with you. Or, look for an attorney who is fluent in your native language or has a paralegal or other assistant who can help with translating. (Many immigration attorneys speak at least basic Spanish, or are originally immigrants themselves, and therefore bilingual.)
- Know beforehand whether the attorney charges a fee for the first meeting or initial consultation. If so, bring a credit card or checkbook to pay with.
Being well-prepared to meet your prospective immigration attorney can have a big impact on choosing the right person and succeeding with your case. Because you have brought the information needed, the attorney you choose can move quickly to get things started. Make the most of this opportunity and get a good start on solving your immigration problems.