Office of International Programs (OIP)

Do I need a lawyer for my personal immigration work?

We cannot answer that question, but we can give you some items to consider.

* You are permitted, but not required, under immigration law or regulations to have an attorney prepare almost any immigration paperwork. You have the right to do it yourself or hire an attorney in the same way that you have the right to file your own tax returns or have a professional do it.

* The DHS web site provides a great deal of information, as well as DHS forms and instructions.

* All of the information and the multitude of forms can be confusing, the titles of the forms can be misleading, and the immigration laws and regulations are complex and ever changing. It is not as easy as it seems to select the right form, fill it out correctly, and file it with all of the accompanying documents at the proper DHS office.

* An attorney can help you understand the benefits available to you, organize and file the right paperwork, and be present with you at most DHS interviews.
* Common reasons to hire a lawyer include H1-B visa applications, green card applications, denials of immigration benefits, and problems with immigration status.

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Can you give me more specifics about what a lawyer can do for me?

Your own personal attorney can represent your interests and should be willing and able to:

  • serve as your advocate, appeal an unfavorable decision by DHS and go to court, if necessary, to argue in your favor;
  • advise you on the immigration options available to you;
  • help you make decisions about what is best for you in your circumstances;
  • make sure that the correct forms are filled out in the proper way and are submitted in a timely manner to the appropriate government offices;
  • refer you to other qualified lawyers in immigration law or in other specialized fields such as family law, criminal law, tax law, and business law, when necessary.

There are certain things that a lawyer cannot do for you.

A lawyer cannot:

  • file papers for you that are not true;
  • legally get you an immigration status for which you do not qualify;
  • change your "priority date," or put you ahead of someone else in the waiting line for an immigrant visa or similar immigration benefit.

The American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF), a nonprofit organization, provides excellent information on immigration lawyers and their services on its web site at

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How can I find a good immigration lawyer and how much will it cost?

In Northern California , we are lucky to have a very active and informed the chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). A few established attorneys and firms have been providing immigration services for many years and a growing number of immigration attorneys newer to the field are opening practices in the area.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association

The Bar Association of San Francisco

American Immigration Law Foundation

Many immigration lawyers list their businesses in the "Yellow Pages" of the telephone book. Look under "Attorneys-Immigration and Naturalization Law." Use the local telephone books or use one of the many web sources, such as


Be a careful consumer. Before choosing an attorney and signing a contract for services, we recommend that you consult the AILA list or ask the attorney for references from colleagues at SFSU or other academic institutions. If an attorney "guarantees" you a visa or a green card, get a second opinion from another attorney. Only the U.S. government can grant immigration benefits. Attorneys do not have the power to grant immigration benefits, so they cannot guarantee you a specific result. An immigration attorney can help you request benefits to which you are entitled in a way that is likely to be successful, and can argue in your favor in interactions with government offices. You should also follow your instincts. If you are not comfortable or do not get good customer service from the first lawyer you find, look for another one.

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How much will it cost to hire an immigration lawyer?

Ask about costs and fees. Most reputable attorneys will be willing to discuss costs and give you a rate schedule in advance of your signing a contract. Here are some issues to consider and items to look for in comparing costs:

  • Some attorneys bill by the hour. Others bill by the kind of work done, such as a set rate to file an application for adjustment to lawful permanent resident status with accompanying documents and forms. Others bill by the kind of form filed, such as charging one fee for filing the form for adjustment of status and/or different fee for filing the accompanying requests for work and travel permission.
  • Some attorneys include filing fees in their own fee structures. Others add the cost of filing fees to your bill. DHS generally charges filing fees for all petitions and applications.
  • Some attorneys include express mail and other mail costs in their own fee structures. Others may add the cost of express mail to your bill.
  • Some attorneys include the costs of ongoing consultation in a set fee. Others will bill for each time they talk with you on the telephone, make a telephone call in your behalf, or take any other action on your case.
  • If DHS asks for additional information or if the petition or application is denied, the attorney may charge an additional fee to prepare and submit that information or to file an appeal to a denial.
  • Attorneys want to succeed in getting you the immigration benefits you want, and will work with you to set up payment schedules and agreements. If you are in the middle of an immigration process and you fail to pay the attorney per your agreement, the attorney has the right to stop work on your case, even if that would have a negative effect on your immigration process.
  • Be sure you and your attorney understand clearly what you want the attorney to do, what your obligations are regarding providing the necessary documents, exactly how the fees are structured, and how and when you are expected to pay for services.

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Will SF State pay my attorney fees?

NO. If you choose to use an outside attorney for your personal immigration work, you must cover all of those costs. That attorney works for you, not for SF State, in the same way that attorneys that handle your estate planning or your traffic tickets work for you. As a matter of institutional policy SF State will not cover your personal legal costs.

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Lawyers are expensive. I am not sure if I have that much money, or if I want to spend it. Couldn't I just do most of the work myself, and hire a lawyer if things get complicated or I get into trouble?

You must make decisions based on your circumstances, but remember that your immigration status affects your whole future. In the same way that you made careful choices about how to use your resources to go to school, or build your career, so, too, should you make a careful decision about the use of your resources for immigration work. Your ability to live and work in the U.S. when you need to affects all of those other choices.

If you are a student, think about the courses that you are taking now or that you have just finished. If you are a professor or researcher, think about your area of specialized knowledge and research. If you work anywhere at SFSU, think about how complicated your job is, and how much more you know about your job than someone knows who has not had your experience and training. That is how much more an immigration lawyer knows about immigration law.

Of course, you can probably do some things yourself. But, as with all other legal matters in your life, you must make reasoned decisions about the level of help you need and the cost/benefit issues involved. Our strongest advice is to remember that everyone's case is different. What worked for "your friend" may not work for you and may make your situation worse. Remember the old adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Getting good qualified help at the beginning can save you many dollars and hours of worry later.

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Should I hire an attorney who is in my state or area of residence or in the area where I intend to live or work in the future? Does it matter?

Immigration law is a "federal" practice and it is primarily "administrative" law. That means that the laws and regulations are the same across the nation, and that most of the work is managed by civil servants, not by judges. For example, an attorney in California can help you file an H-1B petition in Maine , Florida , Alaska , or Hawaii . Most immigration work is handled at one of five DHS "Service Centers" spread across the U.S. , and each service center may have its own preferred ways of preparing and submitting cases. Service Center filing information is public and usually available on the web, but immigration attorneys are aware of regional differences in the rules and filing procedures. In very complex cases that go beyond the administrative level into federal court, there are some variations in interpretation of the law in the different federal court jurisdictions. Immigration attorneys who take cases to the federal courts should be well aware of these variations and how they might affect your case. They should be admitted to the bar, licensed, or otherwise authorized to bring your case to court in a particular area if necessary.

The decision about whether or not to use a local lawyer is a matter of personal choice. For example, some people choose to work with a local attorney so that they can easily have face-to-face meetings.


* An SF State student who is marrying a U.S. citizen who will come to live in San Francisco will often find it easier to work with a local attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area.

* An SF State student who has been offered a job in another state may want to work with an attorney in that state, so that she can help with a green card application in the future.

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What information should I give to my attorney? Does my lawyer work for me or for the government?

Your immigration lawyer works for you. The relationship between the client, the attorney, and the government differs in different countries. In the U.S. , immigration lawyers must work with the DHS to accomplish your goals, but they do not work for the DHS. Immigration lawyers are required to keep confidential the information you share and to provide you with the best possible service. For example, if you have violated your visa status, it is the attorney's job to help you return to lawful status if that is possible and if that is what you want. It is not the job of the attorney to report you to DHS, regardless of whether or not you decide to hire that attorney.

Give accurate and complete information. Most attorneys use an "intake" or "data collection" form to collect the information they will need to represent your interests. Answer those questions truthfully and completely. Tell the immigration lawyer what your real immigration goals are, both short-term and long-term. Sometimes a short-term solution can destroy your long-term options. Your lawyer needs to know "the whole story" in order to do a good job for you.

Tell your lawyer the truth, even if you think it might hurt your case. Your lawyer must know the facts in order to do a good job for you. Also, remember that the U.S. legal system expects people to tell the truth and punishes people who make false statements or provide false documents to obtain benefits. In some countries the problems created by making a false statement or presenting false documents can be solved by giving up the benefit, paying a fine, or having someone important "make the problem go away." U.S. law considers using false statements and false documents to be a serious offense that cannot be "fixed." In immigration law, the punishment can include imprisonment and deportation from the U.S. DHS can put your name on a list that notifies every port-of-entry to turn you away if you try to enter the U.S. This kind of exclusion can last for years or forever. Your attorney needs to have all the facts to help you reach your goal.

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