“The Affordable American Dream”

With government filing fees ranging from free to over $3,000.00 and attorney fees costing at times several thousand dollars, trying to legalize or stay legally in the U.S. can be an expensive proposition. Here are a few ideas to help you save time and money in your pursuit of the ‘American dream’.

USCIS (‘Immigration’ or United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) is a fee based agency not funded with a line item in the federal budget. Instead, Immigration is funded through filing fees paid by customers like you –  much like the U.S. postal service is funded through the purchase of stamps.  That is why some fees can be several hundred or even a few thousand dollars.

Saving on filing fees: If you or a loved one is filing for an immigration benefit that will be difficult to pay for, explore the option of filing Form I-912, Request for Fee Waiver found at uscis.gov. (It is important to note that all USCIS forms are free to download.)  According to the form, “You may request a fee waiver if you are unable to pay the filing fees or biometric services fees for an application or petition that is eligible for a fee waiver. When you request a fee waiver, you must clearly demonstrate that you are unable to pay the fees.”

The benefits eligible for a fee waiver are too numerous to list here. However, the ones that might apply to readers might be the $85.00 biometrics fee, the $110.00 Form EOIR-29, Notice of Appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, the $540.00 Form I-90, Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card; the $680.00 Form I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence or the $495.00 Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization.

Next comes the question of fee waiver eligibility documentation. To qualify for the fee waiver, you have to show that you are currently receiving means-tested benefits such as food stamps. This evidence can be in the form of a letter, notice, or other agency documents that indicate that the specific benefit being received. If you do not qualify or demonstrate that you qualify for a fee waiver, doing so could considerably delay your case or even result in its denial. It is imperative that you read the instructions to the form very carefully. Most USCIS filing fees must be paid by check or money although USCIS accepts credit card payments for some. Check each form’s instructions to make sure.

Saving on attorney fees: It is understandable to try to save money by doing forms yourself or with a low-cost non-attorney. However, this is often a costly mistake.  Rather than using an unlicensed attorney or a well-intentioned friend, at least consult with an experienced immigration attorney to learn your options.  But beware.  Because the term “notario” in Spanish is often understood to mean “attorney” by some Spanish speakers, unscrupulous notaries public often prey on the confusing cognate and hold themselves out as attorneys.  In many states it is a third degree felony for a non-attorney to give legal advice.  The immigration applicant may have no recourse if the illegal advice received results in a denial.

When looking for an attorney, make sure they are licensed in your state or are licensed to practice immigration law. You can check this with your state’s bar association.  Visit this page to find yours.

When making an appointment, first inquire about the cost of the consultation. If there is a consultation fee, request that it be credited toward your contract if you hire the attorney.  Even if you do not hire counsel, it may be wise to pay a consultation fee to ensure that you educate yourself on available options.  There is no sense in spending money, time or energy on a form that you are not eligible for and or that could get you in trouble.  An experienced immigration attorney may be able to avoid costly long term problems.  While talking to the attorney, honestly explain your finances.  Ask if payment plans are offered.

Have you heard the expression “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for his client?” If you find yourself in an immigration proceeding (also known as removal or deportation), securing legal counsel is not only wise, but highly encouraged by Immigration Judges so much so that judges will often grant continuances until an attorney has been retained. As such, court personnel will supply a list of free or low cost deportation defense attorneys. The list can also be found here.

Non-monetary costs: A successful case costs more than money. You must be willing to be precise, invest time, and put in energy to achieve your immigration goal.  USCIS’s forms are detailed and confusing.  Make sure to answer the question asked and do so carefully.  For example, a person raising their spouse’s child as their own but who has not gone through a formal adoption process should not include non-biological or non-adopted children on the I-130.  Likewise, a three day cruise to the Bahamas is still a trip outside of the U.S. and should be included under “Time outside the United States”.

Block off enough time to complete immigration forms or questionnaires in a quiet place, without distractions. The Paperwork Reduction Act requires that each form’s instructions explain how much time you should expect to spend.  For example, it is expected that each Application for Naturalization takes over nine hours to review and complete not including having fingerprints taken which is estimated to be an hour and ten minute process excluding travel time.

Bottom line: The handling of your immigration case may be the most important legal process in your life. Manage it wisely by exploring your legal options, the costs and fees, time and effort involved.

Remember the encouraging passage in Hebrews 6:11, “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized.” Enjoy!

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Elizabeth Ricci, a contributor to this blog, is the managing partner of Rambana & Ricci, PLLC Immigration Attorneys in Tallahassee, Florida. She has practiced immigration law for over 15 years, has taught the subject and written several articles including Foreign-Born Veterans Can Naturalize for Free.  She has appeared on CNN, FoxNews, and other outlets and has been quoted by the New York Times, Washington Post and more.  She is a regular speaker about immigration matters at churches, civic organizations and colleges. 

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