Many immigrants are financially well-off with white-collar jobs or advanced degrees. They come from relatively prosperous families or they earn enough money in the US to afford immigration legal counsel. Yet many immigrants are not so lucky. They are poor and work on jobs most Americans will not take.
Many immigrants do not fully grasp American language, culture, and laws. Immigration law, which is as complicated as tax law, is hard for native Americans – much less immigrants – to comprehend.
The unfortunate result is that many immigrants rely on bad information, generally from people who may not have immigration law expertise. Mexicans, for example, are accustomed to go to notaries for legal issues in Mexico, but fail to realize that notaries in the United States do not do what lawyers do in the United States. A person who claims to be qualified to handle legal immigration matters but who does not have a bar license is called a "notario."
The educational requirements for US lawyers dwarf what is required to become a notary. Almost all lawyers must get a four-year undergraduate degree, followed by three years of law school, then they must pass the bar exam.
Although being part of groups like the American Immigration Lawyers of America (AILA) is not required, many lawyers who practice immigration law become members. These professional organizations provide a means for lawyers to share ideas and solutions. Immigration government agencies are also in communication with AILA. A "notario" does not have these resources.
Stakes are high in immigration matters. If a person relies on the wrong advice, then removal may follow. Families may be broken.
Many immigrants are reluctant to speak to lawyers because they fear that a lawyer will expose them to removal. Cultural issues may prevent an immigrant from seeing an attorney. Money, too, may be a major concern.
The unfortunate truth is that immigration cases logjam courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals. About five years ago, each BIA member had to address about 80 cases per week. If an immigrant cannot articulate a case succinctly or clearly, he or she may suffer adverse consequences.
In 2006, Immigration Courts handled almost 369,000 cases, and 35% were represented by a lawyer. ICE removed 186,000 people in the fiscal year. Less than 50% of lawyers undertake pro bono (unpaid) work in a given year ("The Legal Profession and the Unmet Needs of the Immigrant Poor" by Robert Katzmann, judge on US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit).