Statistics from the Migration Policy Institute reveal that the U.S. immigrant population stood at more than 42.4 million—or 13.3 percent of the U.S. population—in 2014. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, 1.3 million foreign-born individuals moved to the United States, making immigration law an in-demand specialization for paralegals.
What is Immigration Law?
U.S. immigration law deals with the laws surrounding temporary or permanent legal status to foreign-born individuals. It specifies eligibility requirements for entry, conditions for departure, and conditions for maintaining a period of residency.
Immigration is often said to be among the most complex of all areas of law. This distinction comes as no surprise, given the number of pathways to lawful immigration:
- Family-Based Immigration: Family-based immigration allows U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to bring family members into the U.S. as immediate relatives or through the family preference system.
- Employment-Based Immigration: Immigrants with valuable skills may come to the U.S. on a temporary or permanent basis. There are more than 20 types of visas for temporary nonimmigrant workers.
- Permanent Immigration: The U.S. limits employment-based visas to 140,000 every year.
- Refugees and Asylees: Legal admission is often granted to people who are fleeing persecution or who are unable to return to their homeland due to life-threatening conditions. This may also include Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED).
- S. Citizenship: U.S. citizenship through naturalization is reserved for individuals who have had LPR status for at least 5 years.
Immigration attorneys and the paralegals who work alongside them deal with aliens who have committed immigration or criminal violations or those threatened with deportation for violations, such as visa overstays. They also represent family reunification, deportation, business visa, citizenship, and naturalization proceedings.
Job Duties and Responsibilities of Paralegals in Immigration Law
Immigration paralegals may work for private law firms, government agencies, and special interest groups. The wide-reaching job duties and responsibilities of paralegals are indicative of the multifaceted nature of immigration law.
General duties for immigration paralegals include:
- Assisting with client interviews to obtain relevant case information
- Assisting attorney with case planning strategies
- Researching, compiling, and organizing facts associated with cases
- Completing and organizing forms and client documentation
- Researching and analyzing legal sources
- Drafting motions and legal memoranda for attorney review
- Preparing forms related to Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Labor
- Reviewing case status and preparing regular status reports
- Maintaining database, calendars, and dockets
Paralegals in immigration law must coordinate with outside counsel, as well as federal and state agencies to ensure the timely filing of immigrant and non-immigrant visa petitions. They serve as liaisons with government agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security.
Other job duties are often based on the specific immigration status/needs of the client:
- Preparing consular applications
- Preparing initial petition/extension of stay/change of status applications
- Preparing forms related to labor certification
- Determining eligibility based on preference categories
- Obtaining documentation to demonstrate marriage or family relationship
- Preparing visa petitions
- Determining eligibility based on one of the employment-based preference categories
- Preparing petitions with supporting evidence
- Researching and preparing statutory and regulatory requirements to determine asylum claim
- Assembling and filing asylum claim
- Consulting with attorney to determine whether client is eligible for relief from removal
Naturalization and Citizenship
- Consulting with attorney to determine if client is eligible to naturalize
- Obtaining necessary documentation for application and filing application
Derivative Citizenship Claims
- Consulting with attorney to determine if client is eligible for citizenship
- Researching law and obtaining client’s family history
- Preparing passport application and submitting to appropriate government agency
How to Become an Immigration Paralegal: Education and Certification Options
The American Bar Association (ABA) approves paralegal programs in the U.S. Due to a lack of standardized educational requirements for paralegals, programs in paralegal studies range from certificate programs to two-year associate degree programs to bachelor’s degree programs. A few institutions even offer master’s degrees in paralegal studies.
The American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) both recommend that students complete a paralegal program of at least 60 credits and complete an internship of at least six months.
Because of the lack of consistency regarding paralegal education, voluntary certification has become a common pursuit.
The following organizations offer nationally recognized paralegal certifications:
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
- CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) credential (CRP)
- PACE Registered Paralegal credential (RP)
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- Certified Paralegal (CP) credential
- NALS – The Association for Legal Professionals
- Professional Paralegal (PP) credential
- American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI)
- American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP) credential
Although immigration law is covered in a paralegal degree program, the complexity of this area of law has resulted in a wide array of certification programs for practicing paralegals interested in pursuing an advanced level of knowledge in immigration. These programs are designed for paralegals who want to:
- Gain practical exposure to various immigration forms
- Learn how to prepare clients for interviews or court appearances
- Learn how to develop a persuasive application for clients
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) offers a Basic Immigration Law Course, which focuses on two, essential areas of knowledge:
- Immigration law
- Law and paralegal office management
Students of this program gain a theoretical and practical understanding of the basic elements of immigration law. Some of the topics covered in this course include:
- Immigration policies
- Categories of immigrants and non-immigrants
- Basic immigration statutes and visa categories
- Visa application processes
- Procedures required for admission to the U.S.
- Procedures for deportation
Paralegals in immigration law may also complete the ILRC’s National Paralegal Training Program and achieve Board of Immigration (BIA) certification. This 40-hour program includes comprehensive training on the fundamentals of immigration law, offered in a number of formats and in various locations.