For immigrants, COVID-19 has made the road to US citizenship an even more arduous journey, as restrictions make it nearly impossible for them to meet with lawyers in person. Meanwhile, fear of deportation during a pandemic has increased the anxiety for immigrants attempting to stay in the country.
A legal-tech nonprofit in Allston is working to bridge the gap between immigrants and citizenship, virtually and free of charge. ImmigrationHelp.org has been trying to help low-income immigrants in Massachusetts renew their DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) paperwork, apply for green cards and permits, and seek citizenship, all online.
Jonathan Petts, cofounder of ImmigrationHelp (formerly called Immigrants Like Us), said he was inspired to guide others through the complexities by watching his father, an immigrant from the United Kingdom, pursue the American dream.
The legal forms “have multiplied in length and complexity, so now a basic immigration application is up to 100 pages of legalese that would be really hard for a super-well-educated person to complete accurately,” Petts said. “As a result, people need legal help to know what they’re eligible for and to apply . . . but so few people can afford to pay an immigration lawyer.”
The organization’s team is composed of eight students and lawyers who all have experience with immigration matters. Their goal is to guide disadvantaged immigrants through the complicated and expensive legal processes. Those earning below the state’s median income or seeking relief get free support and expert reviews of their applications.
“The goal is to serve low-income immigrants who are eligible for [legal] status, but can’t get it because they can’t afford legal help,” Petts said. “We believe that the solution is combining technology with lawyers.”
Since its founding in November, the organization has served hundreds of undocumented residents, students, and other immigrants by using online technology to guide applicants, rather than requiring lawyers to help one person at a time. The data and information are then reviewed by experts to ensure accuracy.
“At ImmigrationHelp.org, we believe that immigrants make America great,” the organization’s website says. “We’re on a mission to make immigrating to the United States easy, safe, and free by combining the power of technology with attorneys to help you achieve the American dream.”
Website users will find a screening tool to determine what status they qualify for and their risk of being denied. ImmigrationHelp screens out difficult cases involving criminal records and past immigration problems. If a person is deemed eligible for DACA renewal, naturalization, or family green cards, they can then use the site’s software to prepare the documents.
Petts shared a story of an immigrant from Vietnam who held a green card for many years but had not been naturalized, because of the legal costs and her fear of hostility toward immigrants. With the organization’s help, she was told she could be naturalized free of cost.
She’s now a citizen who can vote, and “her sense of feeling unwanted in the US and feeling like she wasn’t welcome here has totally changed,” Petts said. “Now she sees a path for her to be part of our democracy.”
“We’ve been trying to really increase our services during COVID, because people are unsafe,” said Lavinia Teodorescu, a native of Romania who is a junior at Harvard College and the organization’s outreach director. “If someone is at risk of being deported during a pandemic to a place where they don’t have a house, that’s very, very risky.”
Updated with the organization’s new name.