If you're interested in law and want to help immigrants, becoming a paralegal may just be the career for you. Before making any decisions, you may want to consider what daily life is like once you get that first job. But the path to becoming an immigration paralegal means you'll need to get the right experience early on, so looking for jobs with immigration law firms, nonprofit organizations or even with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, may help.
Immigration Law Issues
As an immigration paralegal, there are a handful of legal issues under the federal immigration laws that you'll most likely deal with on a regular basis. Immigrants generally seek legal assistance for legally entering the United States, navigating through the requirements to become a lawful permanent resident and obtaining a green card and, ultimately, to become a U.S. citizen. Paralegals also help immigrants who are victims of persecution in their home countries seek asylum, which occurs when the U.S. government offers an immigrant legal residency as a means of protecting them from inhumane treatment.
What You'll Do
The main role of an immigration paralegal is to assist attorneys with their caseloads. In the area of immigration law, most of the documents you prepare are filed with the USCIS, which is the federal agency that handles most immigration issues. Your daily responsibilities will likely include a significant amount of visa application and petition preparation. You may also find yourself spending lots of time filing applications for naturalization and citizenship with the USCIS. All of these issues require a lot of paperwork, but you'll also need to meet with clients to obtain and document the relevant information, conduct legal research, request documents from foreign countries, such as birth certificates and other vital records, and create and maintain client files.
Immigration Paralegal Employers
When you begin your job search, you'll find that a majority of open positions are with law firms that specialize in immigration law, or if it's a large firm, one that has a department dedicated to immigration law. The hours you work may be unpredictable when employed by a law firm because it depends on the amount of work the firm has. So be prepared to put in a lot of hours sometimes. The USCIS also employs paralegals, but you'll be assisting government attorneys who are responsible for reviewing all those petitions and applications. With the USCIS, you'll have a better chance of a more predictable work schedule. Other possible employers include organizations that provide free legal assistance to immigrants, such as the National Immigrant Justice Center. (Reference 3 “Work Environment”)
Training & Specializing
There isn't a direct training or educational path to becoming an immigration paralegal, as requirements vary for each employer. Many employers hire and train individuals who posses a bachelor's degree but don't have any legal experience. There are, however, certificate, associate's, bachelor's and graduate programs that offer training in paralegal studies, all of which can be an asset when finding that first job. But what really makes you an immigration paralegal is the accumulation of years of on-the-job experience and development of your immigration law expertise. (Reference 3 “How to Become One”)
Michael Marz has worked in the financial sector since 2002, specializing in wealth and estate planning. After spending six years working for a large investment bank and an accounting firm, Marz is now self-employed as a consultant, focusing on complex estate and gift tax compliance and planning.