The Supreme Court is expected to soon decide if the Trump administration acted lawfully when it ended DACA, the program that allows immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to legally continue living and working in the country with two-year permits. As some “Dreamers” scramble to renew their status—not knowing what will happen after the court decision—a new tool is designed to help them complete the necessary forms online even if they can’t afford a lawyer.
The tool, from a nonprofit called Immigrants Like Us, is part of a suite of Turbo Tax-like services for immigration. The website also handles the paperwork for citizenship and family green cards. “Over the last three years, the immigration process has gotten harder than ever for folks who are entitled to legal status here,” says Jonathan Petts, executive director and cofounder of Immigrants Like Us. “The length of the actual forms has multiplied. For certain basic family green card applications, it’s dozens of pages of legalese that are hard for an educated person to answer.”
Those who depend on DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, have to renew their status every two years. Many can’t afford lawyers, and those who might have met with pro bono lawyers at legal aid offices in the past may not have that option during the pandemic. Many are also busy: An estimated 200,000 DACA recipients are considered essential workers during the health crisis. Around 27,000 work in health care. Another 200 are in medical school or in the middle of medical residencies. The online tool, which is free and fast to use, can help make the legal process easier. Even if the Supreme Court finds that the Trump administration ended DACA legally, it’s not clear what that will mean for those who have applied to renew their status, which is why Petts says that it’s an important step for everyone to take.
The website asks users a few questions to make sure it’s a fit (those with more complicated cases and past immigration issues likely need different assistance). Then, like TurboTax, it walks users through questions and automatically fills in forms. An expert from the nonprofit’s staff reviews the forms and then shares instructions on how to file the paperwork. Much of this process can be automated, so the system can scale up to help large numbers of people. “For some of the more complicated humanitarian applications, we’ll never get to full automation, but there’s so much that basic tech can do, both in terms of automating the intake and creating algorithms to highlight problematic cases for attorneys to review,” Petts says.
Petts, an attorney, previously cofounded Upsolve, a startup with a similar digital tool for people dealing with the legal paperwork to file for bankruptcy. Cofounders Mary Gao, a computer science major at Harvard, and Ben Jackson, a legal technologist, also previously worked at Upsolve. Though the new nonprofit is focused on immigration, they see the potential for technology to help with other legal issues, from expungement—the process where someone convicted of a crime can eventually clear their record if they take legal action—to eviction. “I think there’s so many different areas of poverty law that can be modernized with technology tools, supervised by lawyers,” Petts says. “I think that’s really the future of poverty law.”