In recent years, Americans’ view of the “the impact immigrants have on the country remains largely positive” — with “a majority (62%) say[ing] immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents.” The immigration process in the United States is seen as “fairly difficult” and in need of reform. Yet, immigration policy has been deadlocked for years by partisan politics focused more on taking down the other side of the debate than solving issues. Yet, innovative social entrepreneurs haven’t let the recent lack of comprehensive immigration legislation keep them from creating solutions that can help people more efficiently pursue legal status in the United States.
One of these social entrepreneurs is Jonathan Petts, CEO and co-founder of ImmigrationHelp.org (IH). A proud husband and son of immigrants, Jonathan has experience as an international lawyer at two different law firms and as an advisor on international law to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In 2017, he was recognized by FastCase as one of the 50 most innovative leaders in the legal profession. This extensive personal and professional experience informs his leadership at IH, a grantee of Stand Together Trust.
ImmigrationHelp.org is a nonprofit that assists immigrants in filling out forms they need to submit and complete the various expectations of the process to pursue legal status. The process for pursuing legal status as an immigrant can be rather complex because of things like being precise when confirming addresses and the time a person has lived in the United States or abroad, long wait times for processing and approval, and understanding legal options for various immigrant situations, such as student visas, coming as a child, and so forth. IH’s team of lawyers and experts has helped hundreds of immigrants navigate the complicated paperwork and processes for legal-immigration pathways such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
STT spoke with Jonathan about the free services ImmigrationHelp.org provides, how it started, and how those who care about immigration can create positive change on the issue, even while immigration-policy reform remains held up by partisan politics.
STT: What inspired the creation of IH?
Petts: ImmigrationHelp.org was founded in Harvard University’s iLab in 2019 with the mission of helping low-income immigrants live and work in the United States. IH provides a free web application for immigrants to prepare some immigration applications based on answers to simple questions. Low-income immigrants also receive a pro-bono review of their completed applications by legal staff and support throughout the process.
IH is a replication of Upsolve.org, a legal-aid nonprofit co-founded by IH’s team in 2016. Upsolve has rapidly grown to become the largest legal-aid provider in America for filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy and has become self-sustaining from earned revenue.
Inspiration for starting IH was drawn from the fact that everyone on the team is connected to immigration in some shape or another. As the children, grandchildren, and spouses of immigrants, our team wants to be part of a movement that makes legal immigration easier for everyone, everywhere.
Why is there a need for a tool like ImmigrationHelp.org?
Filing for legal status as an immigrant can be very costly, time intensive, and complicated. First, immigration attorneys can charge up to several thousand dollars to help complete immigration processes, even for simple cases. On top of that, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Status (USCIS) filing fee for DACA is $495 and the TPS and Employment Authorization Document filing fee can be up to $545. Because undocumented immigrants are unable to work without legal work permits, and because, according to Econofact (2019), “on average, the hourly wages of undocumented workers are 42 percent lower than the wages of U.S.-born workers and legal immigrants,” many undocumented families, in particular, are unable to afford the high cost of attorney and USCIS filing fees.
ImmigrationHelp.org is making immigration more accessible by helping families bypass the high attorney fees that immigration lawyers would otherwise charge to complete the same form completion process for simple cases. Furthermore, filling out immigration forms on your own can be complicated and time intensive. Applying for legal statuses as an immigrant can require submitting multiple different forms which can be several pages long. Incorrectly filling out parts of these forms can significantly increase your application’s likelihood of rejection. For example, forgetting to sign where indicated, forgetting to answer a necessary question, filling in a response in the wrong way, etc., while seemingly small human errors, have a large impact on making it likely that USCIS will not accept your application. If USCIS rejects your application, obtaining legal status will be delayed further.
ImmigrationHelp.org empowers users by guiding them through the form preparation process and offers helpful information throughout in the form of FAQs, Learning Center content pieces, and user support. This better ensures that more of our users are submitting safe and accurate forms to the government than if they were completing them on their own. ImmigrationHelp.org’s approved application rate from confirmed filings with USCIS is 98.8%.
There are a lot of people who might think the complicated immigration application processes can only be fixed in the political sphere. You’re a nonprofit simplifying the process for immigrants and refugees. What is your advice to others who see the need for reform in America’s immigration processes but don’t want to wait for lawmakers to fix it?
Our advice to others who see the need for reform in America’s immigration processes is to find ways to make the current processes easier and more accessible. It’s important to note that the current system is not impossible to navigate — it’s just unnecessarily complex and long. Our mission as an organization has been to streamline the immigration application process and make it more accessible for low-income immigrants by figuring out how to lower costs and the amount of time it takes families to complete their immigration forms. Leveraging tech tools has allowed us to accomplish this. As such, while we wait for lawmakers to fix America’s immigration processes, what we can do in the meantime is deconstruct the existing infrastructure and rebuild it in such a way that control is more in the hands of applicants themselves rather than attorneys or the government.
Tell us how ImmigrationHelp.org assists people in the process of securing legal status.
Our team works hard to produce content and helpful articles that guide individuals through immigration-related topics and questions that they may have. This is one of the main ways that individuals find ImmigrationHelp.org. When they Google their immigration topics, our articles appear on their Google searches. Once on our content pages, they are able to find our tools and take advantage of that free service as well. Additionally, two other ways that individuals have learned about our organization are through large amounts of earned media and referrals from other nonprofit and community organizations. IH has been featured by Forbes, Fast Company, Univision, Noticias Telemundo, ABC, and others.
Our service works by letting individuals visit our site to enter their basic information into our screeners. If eligible to apply, they prepare the required forms and supporting documents needed to successfully file for their legal immigration status by completing an additional questionnaire. We ask only the necessary questions to complete the forms safely and confidently. Overall, the process can take between half an hour to just a few hours from start to finish, varying on a case-by-case basis. However, across the board, this tool saves families lots of time they would otherwise have to spend waiting for assistance from an attorney.
Our form-preparation tools are completely free for our users. This helps families save thousands of dollars that an immigration attorney might otherwise charge them to complete the same processes. Through generous donations and grants, and also by automating the form-preparation process, our team is lowering the financial barriers to legal immigration.
In 2022, we helped more than 230 immigrants complete their immigration forms for free, primarily for the DACA program. Furthermore, approximately 2 million individuals visited our site in the same year. We were able to help many of these individuals by empowering them to answer their own immigration-related questions through our informative articles and resources. As we expand to other services, including TPS and a universal screener for eligibility for various legal-immigration avenues, we look forward to helping many more immigrants in the upcoming years.
To learn more about the work and services of IH, visit https://www.immigrationhelp.org/