I get this question occasionally — especially from savvy foreign nationals looking to apply for adjustment of status or citizenship. To many, I give my honest opinion: you may be alright on your own. You have a simple immigration history with no arrests or other 'red-flags.' You're intelligent and responsible. You very well may get through the system on your own.
But do you really want worry about a messed up box on form I-485, Application to Adjust Status? Or lose sleep worrying if you correctly filled out your joint-sponsor's I-864, Affidavit of Support? And when you run into trouble, or doubt, do you know where to turn? For those that go it alone, stay away from the online immigration forums — or well, don't take anything on them as gospel.
Immigration forums can be tools for learning basic immigration procedure. But, as a lawyer, I get nauseous with anxiety reading many flat wrong things posted. Here's an example of a common issue faced by young couples I came across on a popular forum:
My Fiancé and I finished filling out our K1 forms and were prepared to send them in when we recently found out she is pregnant! Due to the pregnancy, and family traditions we want to move our wedding date sooner. We are concerned about submitting a K1 fiancé visa and getting married before it is approved.
Great question with serious consequences for this couple. What's her next step? What application does she need to file? A forum member jumps in with the visa category she should seek.
You can always get married and then file for the CR-1 visa. Takes longer to process, but at least you'll be married.
Point for love — they love each other and want to get married. Great. Most likely that's the right thing to do. But CR-1 is not her next legal move. She needs a petition to start herself down the path to permanent residency, either an I-130 Petition for Alien Relatives, if the couple marries, or I-129F, Petition for Alien Fiancé, if the couple intends to marry once she enters the US. I don't want to give you the blow by blow of this, at times, gut wrenching thread — but it needlessly covers a range of complex topics, like visa fraud and advanced parole. Message boards can teach you about the immigration system to a degree, but should not be used in place of a trusted legal adviser.
So should you hire an immigration lawyer? Most good lawyers will give you the ubiquitous answer they give to many seemingly simple questions: it depends. A good lawyer appreciates the risk and uncertainty clients face when making difficult legal choices. A good lawyer can help you confront these challenges informed and with 'eyes wide open.' But if you depend on advice from friends, family, or (gasp) online message boards, you may get a definitive answer to a question with more complexity, risk and future consequences than you realize. Proceed with caution.