By Arturo Jiménez
U.S. immigration laws are very complex, confusing, and sometimes outright contradictory. Immigrants navigating this area find themselves wading through congressional laws, international treaties, nebulous government regulations, wordy court decisions, and inconsistent local practices by government authorities.
At the same time, there is an inherent danger that if not done properly, an immigrant and their family may be expelled for life. Immigrants do not have a right to a public defender. As our laws classify the great majority of immigration violations as civil infractions, not crimes, an immigrant must find and pay for their own advocate.
Unsurprisingly, the first person an immigrant often turns to in the U.S. is a public notary due to a misperception that notaries are “super attorneys” like the notary publics in their home countries. U.S. notaries, however, are functionaries of state law who generally only provide an officially designated witness to a signature on a document.
Unfortunately, some state public notaries take advantage of immigrants’ misperceptions. Most public notaries are not attorneys or judges at all. Importantly, the law prohibits them from telling someone how to fill out an immigration form without legal authority. Immigrants looking for an attorney should begin their search by contacting trusted local immigration organizations for a referral.
There are some wonderful not-for-profit legal organizations in the Denver area such as the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, Catholic Charities’ Immigration Services, and the Justice and Mercy Legal Aid Clinic, among others.
Some immigration law clinics such as those at the University of Denver College of Law, the University of Colorado Law School, the Metro Volunteer Lawyers, Mi Casa Resource Center, and the El Centro San Juan Diego, among others, offer legal aid during night hours and limited pro bono services.
In addition, the city and county of Denver’s Office of Immigrant and Refugees along with local community colleges have raised funds to pay for private attorneys to represent individuals. All these organizations have referral lists and/or volunteer attorneys.
After avoiding the pitfalls of the notorious notaries and receiving referrals from trusted organizations, finding an actual immigration attorney requires consulting with at least two or three attorneys before hiring one. There are several factors to look at in the beginning, such as if an attorney is dedicated to immigration law and participates in immigration law organizations like the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).
It is also important to determine if an attorney can communicate effectively, either directly or with the help of qualified staff, and if they have sufficient experience in immigration law. Meeting more than one attorney allows the person in need of representation to compare fees and determine if they are affordable or even worth the time. Often immigrants believe that the more money they spend on their lawyer’s legal fees, the better their representation.
An immigrant looking for legal representation should look for good communication, affordability, and then look to pay more for experience. One should ask other relevant questions to avoid surprises, such as if they provide payment plans and if they will be charged for short telephone calls and emails. Finding an attorney who can effectively communicate and discuss sometimes delicate and confidential information about one’s life is something that many English speakers take for granted.
Law offices that rely on the children of immigrants to translate important details should be avoided. One should only consult with lawyers that speak the immigrant’s language or who have a qualified interpreter on staff. Most importantly, finding an attorney who works to keep up on the ever-changing immigration laws should be the most important factor. Look for an attorney who dedicates themselves to the practice of immigration law rather than various types of cases. I would recommend hiring someone who is a member of the AILA or the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
These organizations provide clearinghouses of information and direct communication with government agencies that a disconnected attorney simply cannot obtain on their own. Overall, I recommend that people stay away from false hope or so-called “guarantees.” Remember that an attorney does not make the final decision in immigration cases, which usually rests with the Department of Homeland Security or the judge. Those decision makers often wield a large amount of discretion, and a good attorney simply places their client in the best position to receive favorable discretion from the judge.
Arturo Jimenez is a veteran immigration and naturalization law attorney, author of a 2019 book on immigrant children “Dreamers Nightmare: The U.S. War on Immigrant Latinx Children,” a former member of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education, and an affiliate professor at Metro State University Denver.