Immigration Aid: What Are ‘Pro Bono’ Legal Services And How Can I Access Them?

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Immigration cases can be so costly and confusing that many individuals who need legal assistance don’t even consider hiring an attorney. But because the paperwork and process can be so tedious, finding a lawyer can save you time and money. There are several national networks that provide free legal representation for green card applications, citizenship processes, and resources to immigrant communities who may not be able to afford them. Here are some frequently asked questions about free legal aid for immigration cases and how you can access these resources:

  1. What are pro bono legal services?
    Pro bono is a legal term that comes from the Latin phrase “pro bono publico,” meaning “for the public good.” Lawyers in the US are regulated by the American Bar Association, which recommends that attorneys contribute at least 50 hours of pro bono service every year. Some states don’t require these service hours, but many lawyers choose to provide free or low-cost services for individuals who can’t afford legal fees.
  2. How can I find out if I’m eligible for legal aid?
    There are two ways to access legal services: through a private attorney/law firm who provides pro-bono services, or through a nonprofit organization who has a program to provide these services . If you use a private attorney, you will probably have to pay some general fees. If a lawyer advertises pro bono or low-cost services, ask for their consultation rates BEFORE your appointment. Many qualified nonprofits are entirely free, however, especially if you can prove that you are unable to pay. They use a percentage of federal poverty income guidelines to determine eligibility. The threshold for a family of 4 in 2021 is $26,500. You can find a table of percentages and income limits here (ingles).
  3. What are some common legal aid resources that are available?
    American Immigration Lawyers Association: Over 15,000 immigration lawyers throughout the US are AILA members. This website can help answer many common questions about immigration legal services and help you find a pro bono attorney to work with.

    US Department of Justice: Click on your state to access a list of pro bono legal service providers in your area.

    Immigration Legal Directory: Search by your zip code or detention facility name (select language box in top right corner).
  4. What kinds of cases can an immigration lawyer help with?
    Pro bono attorneys or nonprofits with legal aid services can help with many kinds of affirmative immigration benefits:
    – Naturalization (citizenship)
    – Adjustment of status/green card/permanent residence applications
    – Fiance visas
    – Family-based petitions
    – Replacement of permanent resident card

    Cases usually fall into two categories: civil and criminal. Some nonprofits and attorneys provide legal aid for immigration cases with criminal charges while others do not. Tell your intake coordinator or attorney what type of case you have and if you need help with removal defense (deportation, visa overstays etc.). It is important to provide clear and honest details about your situation to get assistance with your applications.
  5. How do I know if an attorney is licensed?
    Lawyers must be licensed by the bar association in their state. You can look up attorneys by their name or bar number (click here to find your state’s agency). For a list of attorneys who have been suspended, disbarred or otherwise disciplined by the US Dept. of Justice, click here (CTRL+F to search by name or location).
  6. Is receiving legal aid considered a public charge?
    No. Under the current rules only those receiving cash assistance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or government funded long-term institutional care are considered a public charge. There are also some exceptions for refugees and other visa types. Read FAQs here from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (Scroll down for Spanish).
  7. How do I find a lawyer in my area?
  1. What if my loved one is detained by ICE?
    The DOJ Legal Orientation Program informs people in immigration proceedings of their rights, immigration court procedures and possible immigration defenses. You can find self-help legal materials in English and Spanish here. For a list of immigration detention facilities that have LOP resources, click here.

Kaley LaQuea is an award–winning print and digital journalist who’s been creating content since 2008. She’s passionate about economic, environmental and social justice. She has an unhealthy relationship with caffeine and two cats: Totoro and Mononoke.