When you receive notice of your in-person interview with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), you might be tempted to attend it without counsel to save on legal fees. Many applicants, however, end up spending more money down the line because they did not have a qualified attorney helping them deal with unexpected problems at the interview.
If you filed the application or petition on your own, you could tell yourself the wait is over and the interview is just a formality before USCIS grants the immigration benefit. If you had counsel helping you with the filing, you might decide her presence at the interview is excessive because your important questions have already been addressed.
But the advantages of having reputable, experienced counsel appear with you at the interview far outweigh the disadvantage of incurring legal fees for representation.
In-person interviews with USCIS are necessary to obtain most immigration benefits, including asylum, permanent residence (green card) and naturalization (U.S. citizenship). The interview usually occurs at the USCIS Field Office with jurisdiction over the applicant’s place of residence.
As of October 2, 2017, under the Trump Administration, USCIS began to phase-in interviews for the following:
• Employment-based adjustment of status/green card applications (Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status) filed on or after March 6, 2017, in the EB-1, employment based first preference, EB-2, employment based second preference, and EB-3, employment based third preference.
• Refugee/asylee relative petitions (Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition) for beneficiaries who are in the United States and are petitioning to join a principal asylee/refugee applicant.
Previously, except in certain situations such as when a criminal record or unlawful presence existed, applicants in these categories were not scheduled to attend an in-person interview with USCIS for their applications to be adjudicated.
USCIS plans to gradually expand interviews to other immigration benefits. It notes the change is in line with Trump’s Executive Order 13780, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” and is part of the agency’s efforts to improve the detection and prevention of fraud and enhance the integrity of the immigration system.
Here are 5 main benefits of having immigration counsel at your in-person interview with USCIS:
1. Provide protection against excessive screening or vetting
The in-person interview is a screening and vetting procedure for persons seeking immigration benefits to reside or stay long-term in the United States. While USCIS officers are trained to be professional, courteous, and respectful of your legal rights, some may turn (or may seem) hostile when there is reason to believe the applicant is committing immigration fraud, is a danger to the community, or is ineligible for or undeserving of the benefit sought.
Interviews with USCIS are not supposed to be adversarial in nature. They are meant to gather complete and accurate information (both favorable and unfavorable) to properly adjudicate the case, not to find a reason to deny the requested benefit.
Nevertheless, due to shifts in immigration enforcement priorities under the Trump Administration, there are now more reports of applicants being arrested and detained by U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) at their interviews with USCIS. These cases normally involve beneficiaries attending I-130 interviews who have prior or outstanding removal orders and have remained unlawfully in the country.
Prior to the interview, the attorney can review your criminal record and immigration history to evaluate the risks of interview attendance. While attorneys have no authority to stop ICE from lawfully apprehending or detaining an applicant at the USCIS interview, they may ask critical questions to verify where the applicant will be held and the next steps in the detention and removal process. Bear in mind, however, that absent an express agreement, the attorney is not obligated to represent you beyond the scope of the interview with USCIS.
In less complicated cases — such as where ICE apprehension or detention is unlikely because the only violation is a visa overstay — your having counsel at the interview is still crucial. Attorney appearance encourages the USCIS officer to remain professional and courteous and stick to relevant issues.
2. Clarify unclear questions and complex issues
At the in-person interview, the USCIS officer may ask for any information related to questions on the application forms, your eligibility for the benefit sought, your marital history, your manner of entry into the U.S., your admissibility to the U.S. (such as any arrests, charges or convictions, or misrepresentations made to an immigration official), your educational background, and your past and present employment (including the documents you used to obtain a job in the United States).
When a USCIS officer asks a vague or unclear question, the attorney may request clarification to ensure the applicant understands what is being asked. If the attorney knows the answer is factually or legally incorrect, she may also ask the officer to rephrase the question or point to objective records in the file to show the applicant is mistaken.
3. Help prevent unnecessary delays and complications
USCIS stated the new interview requirement, which became effective on October 2, 2017, will amount to approximately 17% of the agency’s total workload. Thus, longer processing times and increased delays in all adjudications , especially interview-based applications, are expected. These days, USCIS is taking one year or more to adjudicate green card and naturalization applications, as opposed to six to nine months in the past.
At the interview, you should strive to present all the necessary information and requested documents to facilitate approval. Otherwise, it may take several weeks or months for USCIS to issue a Request for Evidence or Notice of Intent to Deny, to which you must respond within a specified time frame (e.g. 87 days and 30 days, respectively.)
Your attorney can help you figure out what you need to bring to the interview, based on the instructions in the interview notice and the unique facts of your case. The attorney is also better equipped to evaluate whether a favorable decision or adverse notice is expected, depending on what occurred at the interview, and prepare you for next steps.
4. Serve as an advocate
Unlike in court hearings before a judge, interviews with USCIS do not involve your attorney asking you direct questions to solicit testimony. The USCIS officer asks the questions and you provide the answers.
Questions on issues that may seem inappropriate or unimportant to you might be relevant to your eligibility for the immigration benefit and be in line with USCIS policy. Having counsel at the interview helps you determine when it’s better to answer, ask for clarification, or object (for good cause).
Your attorney cannot respond to questions the USCIS officer directs to you or coach you on how to respond to questions. She may, however, advise you on legal issues or raise objections to inappropriate questions or, as a last resort, ask to speak with a supervisor (particularly if the interview becomes argumentative or antagonistic).
Having an attorney present at the interview helps to protect and advocate your legal rights. If USCIS instructs you to provide a sworn, written statement on a controversial point, the attorney can help verify that you understand what you are providing and signing.
Counsel can further help you to avoid misrepresenting material facts to the USCIS officer and explain unfavorable information to defuse a difficult situation. They advise you on pitfalls and weaknesses in your case that will likely be at issue in the interview. They determine when and how to best present testimony and documentary evidence to highlight positive factors or offset negative factors in your case.
It is rare for interviews to be video-recorded. Without counsel, it will be just the USCIS officer and you (and possibly your interpreter) in the interview room. The officer will takes notes for the file, but you typically will not have access to them unless you submit a Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Request, which normally takes several months to process. Moreover, in the FOIA response, the agency may redact, or black out, any information protected by one of the nine FOIA exemptions to prevent certain harms, such as an invasion of privacy, or harm to law enforcement investigations.
An attentive attorney at the interview will carefully observe the discussion and take informative notes on questions asked and answers given. If USCIS issues a Notice of Intent to Deny or other adverse notice based on purported discrepancies and inconsistencies at the interview, an attorney may provide a credible explanation on what was said in the interview and how it was conducted. It won’t just be your word against the allegations of the interviewing officer.
5. Add credibility to your claim
Having an attorney present does not mean you have something to hide. On the contrary, many USCIS officers prefer applicants to bring counsel to the interview for it to run more smoothly and efficiently.
In addition, because attorneys have a duty of candor to the tribunal, their presence generally adds credibility to your claims. An attorney cannot knowingly present false information or false documents or perpetuate fraudulent claims without running afoul of the professional responsibility rules.
The attorney can help prepare you for interview by describing what questions to expect and which issues are likely to arise, and how to best address them. They can further prepare and submit a legal brief to stave off concerns and persuade the officer to approve your case.
Conclusion: Bring Counsel to the Interview
There are many applicants who attend their interviews without counsel and get their applications or petitions approved. But these cases are usually very well-documented with positive information and no adverse factors to consider. It is hard to know exactly how your interview will go.
Many things can go wrong at the interview with USCIS, which may lead to severe consequences including denial decisions and even a Notice to Appear in removal proceedings before an Immigration Court. For example, the USCIS officer may conduct separate interviews of the U.S. citizen (I-130 petitioner) and his foreign national spouse (I-485 applicant) and determine they entered into a sham marriage for immigration purposes. The officer may review the entire immigration history and/or criminal record of a naturalization applicant and find that he is not only ineligible for citizenship, but is subject to removal from the United States.
Even if you prepared and filed the application or petition with USCIS on your own, or with the help of an immigration consultant or online immigration service, you may have counsel enter her appearance at the interview by submitting a Form G-28, Notice of Entry of Appearance as Attorney, to the USCIS officer. Once the G-28 is accepted, the appearance will be recognized until the matter is concluded (absent a withdrawal of representation).
In some cases, the interview goes so well that having counsel seems to be an added expense with no benefit. But more than likely, counsel’s presence at the interview contributes to the successful outcome, even though you might not be able to measure the effects. And when the stakes are high, it’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared and to err on the side of caution by having counsel at the interview.
This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.
Photo by: johnhain