U.S. immigration law resources for migrants

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Damn Mexicans had a post up a while back mentioning that people had been asking about where to find immigration information online.  In belated response, I'm including below some resources, many of which I use on a regular basis in my work.  I can't say much about message boards since I don't visit most of them--from what I've seen, there is a little good information and a lot of bad.   Also, some of them have been overrun by trolls. 

I'll try to update this list below when new resources come to light (please send me any links I might have missed through the contact button on the sidebar or in comments below), and perhaps we can link to the list somewhere on the sidebar if people find it useful.

Please see the Important Note at the bottom of the page--in short, this is not intended to be a DIY guide, and you really should seek the assistance of an experienced attorney for any significant immigration matter.   

Finding Legal Assistance

EOIR (U.S. Dept. of Justice) List of Low-cost Legal Service Providers (by state): A good starting point for low-cost legal assistance. 

Lawhelp.org: Comprehensive internet database of low-cost legal services providers by state and locality. 

LIRS: The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) has a list of local affiliates around the country that provide low-cost legal services.  

National Immigration Project (NIP) of the National Lawyers Guild: List of attorney members of the NIP by state (NIP says it has not evaluated these attorneys and assumes no liability for their services.)

Catholic Charities: Most Catholic dioceses offer some services to migrants, although not all offer legal services to undocumented migrants.  Check this site to find the closest Catholic Charities or related organization. 

AILA Lawyer Search: These will be AILA members--primarily private attorneys, though also some attorneys at nonprofit agencies.  As always, proceed with reasonable caution, though at least there won't be bogus notarios or "travel agents" listed here. 

IRAC: Located in Alexandria, VA, the Immigrant and Refugee Appellate Center (IRAC) represents immigrants in appeals to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) or federal court.

Government resources


The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website is notoriously difficult to navigate or to Google, often fraught with link rot, but nonetheless has a lot of essential information.  I'll try to check on these links from time to time, but if they rot, look for them on the USCIS main page.  

Forms page: All the USCIS forms are available here.  Don't let anyone ever charge you for a blank form--they're available for free online or at the local USCIS office

Also, USCIS has some applications that can be completed online like change of address forms, work permit applications, or replacement green card applications.  (Note: Exercise caution in applying for work permits and seek legal advice before applying if possible.  A favorite practice of USCIS is to keep the fee and deny the application if there is the slightest error in categorization or concern about eligibility.)  USCIS has said that it wants to move towards online applications for all its forms in the next few years.

Adjudicator's Field Manual: Contains details about USCIS procedures that are not always found in the statutes or regulations.  Immigration officers are supposed to follow these rules when they interview people for green cards or citizenship. 

Immigration and Nationality Act (INA): Core body of statutes that comprise immigration law in the U.S. 

Code of Federal Regulations, Title 8: Regulations based on the INA that are promulgated by the government.  These contain more detailed information about immigration policies and procedures.  An easier version to navigate is here.

Processing times: You can check on posted processing times for different immigration forms based on which Service Center they were sent to.  These times fluctuate and represent an estimate rather than a firm commitment by the government to process papers within a certain timeframe.

Online Case Status Check: If you have filed forms with USCIS, you can check on the status of the case by entering in the 13-digit receipt number found on notices received from USCIS.  But USCIS often fails to update information in the online system, making this about as useful as the 800 number, which is to say not very.

National Customer Service Center (NCSC): 800-375-5283 (TTY 800-767-1833).  Calling this official information phone line can be an exercise in futility even for experienced attorneys--it seems designed to screen out the majority of callers before they can get any information, and then to give those who do get through as little information as possible.  However, sometimes it is a required first step in getting information about a stalled case, followed by an InfoPass appointment.  Realize that when you call, you will not be talking to a USCIS officer, but instead to a contract worker who doesn't have access to much more information than you do on your own from the USCIS website.  All they can usually do is make an informational inquiry to an actual USCIS officer that may or may not result in concrete action.  So try the number, but manage your expectations.

InfoPass Appointments: Use this online form to schedule an informational appointment at your local immigration office and avoid part (but not all) of the wait time.  Be forewarned that many InfoPass officers will do their best to get you to go away so they can move on to the next person in line.  Be persistent.  Seek legal advice before going to an InfoPass appointment if you have an outstanding order of deportation or removal--if you do, ICE may be waiting for you there.

"How Do I?" Fact Sheets: Useful fact sheets. 

Affirmative Asylum Manual (pdf): Comprehensive description of the asylum process.

Know Your Rights Page: This page contains some useful pointers (scroll down to the bottom of the page) about how to avoid getting duped by notarios or unscrupulous attorneys, who can be your worst enemy.  It also contains a link to the EOIR list of low-cost legal representation linked to above.

Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants (pdf): Helpful information for Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs).  

Guide to Naturalization (pdf): Useful information for applicants for citizenship. 

Naturalization Self Test: Practice for the Civics and History Exam. 

Civics and History Exam study resources: Note that the new version of the naturalization civics and history exam will be implemented later this year (2008).  Check here to see which version you will be eligible to take. 

Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) - The Immigration Courts

EOIR Main page 

List of Immigration Courts and Judges (by state)

List of Immigration Court Forms: (Note the separate list of USCIS forms above.)  

EOIR Hotline - 800-898-7180: This is an automated number to obtain basic case information for immigrants in removal proceedings.  Callers won't have to (or be able to) talk to a live operator.  Call the hotline to get information about the next scheduled hearing in a case, the name of the judge, case processing information, and the result of any previous proceedings or appeals for a particular individual.  Make sure to have the A# (alien registration number) of the person you are calling about handy.  This hotline is essential for anyone who is now or has ever been in removal (deportation) proceedings.  Also en espaƱol. 

EOIR is releasing a uniform court procedures manual in July that will hopefully make immigration proceedings more predictable and efficient.   

State Department

State Department main page for immigrants. This includes information about different types of visas, general visa application requirements, and country-specific documentary requirements for consular processing cases (that is, cases where U.S. family members have petitioned to bring in relatives who are currently outside the U.S.)  You'll find yourself interacting with the State Department if you or your family member are outside the U.S. and need to come in.

Visa Bulletin: Can be difficult to interpret, but includes information about wait times for different categories of family-sponsored and employer-sponsored green cards.  Updated monthly. 

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Essential for any application for asylum, withholding of removal, or relief under the Convention Against Torture.  

Part 9 of the Foreign Affairs Manual (9 FAM): Procedural guidelines for consular officers at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.

Title 22 ("Foreign Relations/DOS") of the Code of Federal Regulations: Regulations governing cases processed at consulates and embassies abroad.  

List of U.S. Embassy Websites: U.S. embassies often have local procedures for obtaining visitor visas or other visas to enter the U.S.  Much of that information is available on the country-specific embassy website. 

Resources from Pro-migrant Organizations

Immigration Equality: This site is an easily navigable treasure trove of useful information--including the most comprehensive and best-organized asylum primer on the web.  It is geared towards LGBT asylum-seekers, but includes detailed information essential for any asylum-seeker.  The site also includes comprehensive resources on HIV and LGBT immigration basics.

There is also a comprehensive plain-English glossary of immigration terms and list of nonimmigrant and employment-based visas.

NIF Community Resource Bank: The National Immigration Forum (NIF) has compiled a useful list of information, organizations, and other resources, including tips on obtaining legal assistance

AILA: The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) website wide-ranging information geared towards immigration lawyers.  Some of it may be restricted to AILA members, though, including the one immigration message board on the internet that I usually trust (sorry!).

NYSDA: The NY State Defenders Association (NYSDA) Immigrant Defense Project has some useful materials for immigrants caught up in the criminal justice system, including these guides (much of this information relates to federal law and is applicable around the country, not just in NY/NJ):

Deportation 101: Detention, Deportation, and the Criminal Justice System.  (pdf)

Removal Defense Checklist in Criminal Charge Cases (pdf)

Immigration Consequences of Convictions Summary Checklist  (No immigrant--permanent resident or otherwise--should make decisions in any criminal case, no matter how unimportant the charge may seem, without being aware of the potential immigration consequences.) 

Immigration OnPointThe Immigration Policy Center, a division of the American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF), has established a new information clearinghouse with some valuable primers on issues like how to immigrate to the U.S. legally and what the 3 and 10-year bars mean.

NILC Immigration Law Resources: The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) has some useful resources available on immigration law and policy, including this guide for immigrants in detention and their families written by Bryan Lonegan, formerly of Legal Aid in New York City. (pdf)  

ILWSearch articles for specific topics in immigration law.

List of consular officers (pdf) at the State Department to contact if your consular processing case is stuck. 

NCLR Immigration Fact Sheets: The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) has some basic overviews of immigration law in English and Spanish, as well as information about pending policy issues.

NYIC: The New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) has a FAQ relating to immigration and public benefits.  They also list the number to the New York Immigration Hotline for general immigration information.  There are a variety of languages spoken: (Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.) (800) 566-7636  

AILF Practice Advisories: AILF has a series of legal practice advisories more suited for lawyers than laypeople, but the advisories could be helpful to people who are now or have been in removal proceedings. 

Duke from Migra Matters has a useful list of immigration resources, including an extensive list of websites of pro-migrant nonprofit organizations.  

Raids Resources

If you are in the New York/New Jersey area and experience an immigration raid by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), you can call the Rapid Response Network Hotline (1-800-308-0878) to talk to someone in Spanish or English about how to defend and preserve your rights.  Note: This number is to be used for emergencies only, not for routine immigration inquiries, and should only be used at the time of contact with ICE.  For routine informational inquiries, use the NY Immigration hotline (212) 419-3737 in NJ or, in New York, (800) 566-7636.  Also, please limit use to residents of NY and NJ.  More info here.  For information on your rights ahead of time, check out the AFSC resources directly below:

AFSC: American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has an invaluable set of resources for how to protect yourself in the event of a raid.  In particular, the illustrated guide from CASA de Maryland, in English and Spanish, is excellent.

Private Law Firms

Much of this information will be geared toward employment-based immigration, but Shusterman's page in particular is fairly comprehensive.


Cyrus Mehta  


Chang and Boos

Other Resources

TRAC Individual Judge Reports: This website from Syracuse University compiles data on asylum decisions for immigration judges around the country for 2001-2006.  Rates of asylum denials are included for each judge for whom data exists.  This is helpful not only for asylum seekers but for anyone in removal proceedings, since a given judge's asylum denial rate will often (though not always) shed light on his/her overall attitude towards immigrants.  Unfortunately, with the discretion and lack of due process inherent in the current system, winning or losing a case can depend almost entirely on the outlook and political opinions of the immigration judge.  Knowing the name of your judge is therefore essential--you can find this out for someone in removal proceedings by calling the EOIR hotline referenced above: 800-898-7180. 

And, of course, check out the bloggers listed in the blogroll to the right for updates on immigration law and migrant advocacy efforts. 

Important Note: This page is not intended to serve as a do-it-yourself guide, but instead to help inform migrants and their families about U.S. immigration law.  In almost any interaction with USCIS or the State Department, and certainly with something as complicated as a spousal green card application, you are more likely to avoid pitfalls (and there are lots) by seeking competent legal advice before you start the process.  Attempting to do things on your own can lead to deportation, exclusion, and separation of families.  No matter how sympathetic your personal circumstances, realize now that the laws are extremely unfavorable to immigrants and chances of obtaining personal exceptions to the rules are very low. 

If you are in removal proceedings in immigration court, you must seek the aid of a competent attorney.  Failure to do so can lead to dire consequences, including permanent deportation. 

I wish we had a legal system that was more user-friendly and didn't result in perverse incentives for attorneys (i.e., the more complicated the system is, the more essential attorneys are and the higher the fees they can charge), but to paraphrase the great Donald Rumsfeld, you go to court with the system you have, not the one you want.

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janna said:

Thank you, yave. I wish I had had this post at my fingertips a couple weeks ago! The system is a nightmare to navigate, especially when someone you love has been detained and your primary goal is to find them and be sure their rights are being protected.
One thing I would add is to find out and write down the A-numbers (Alien Registration Number) of those you care about, in the even that they are detained. It is next to impossible to find out the whereabouts of a detainee without this number.
If the person is undocumented, they will receive an A-number when they are detained. In that case, be sure and instruct their family members, or anyone who the detainee is likely to call from jail, to ask for that number when s/he calls. Any correspondence to that detainee must include the A-number. Knowing that number can save tons of grief and aggravation in the end.

kyledeb Author Profile Page said:

Bookmarked and saved for many future references,

This post is an invaluable one yave. It's unfortunate in many of the case that I'm familiar with of victories for migrants, a lot of the specifics on immigration law are hidden from the public eye. The few times that we have been able to win, I can't help but feel that the secret to those victories have been kept safe. Hopefully this list and the suggestions here will help to untangle the big black box that is the U.S. immigration system. You put something into it and you have no idea how or where it's going to come out.

DM said:

For Help attending college as an immigrant the dream act portal ( www.dreamact.info/forum ) is very helpful.

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