If Congress ever does pass a law giving undocumented immigrants a "pathway to citizenship," Mark O’Brien wants to be ready. Immigration reform could allow at least 10 million people to become Americans—but not without a protracted bureaucratic experience. As a developer of technology that helps people with legal issues, O’Brien wants the process to be as painless as possible.
O’Brien is executive director of Pro Bono Net, which has created several helpful immigration services. The latest is the colorful CitizenshipWorks app, aimed at permanent residents (green carders). It allows people to easily assess their eligibility, work out how many days they’ve spent out-of-country (there are limits), find accredited legal services, and brush up on language and civics knowledge. The app, which has iPhone and Android versions, includes a mass of flash-cards and audio quizzes to help applicants prepare.
About 8 million people are eligible to become U.S. citizens. But only about 8% each year actually make it through the process. Pro Bono Net says high fees, and a lengthy and confusing application process, push many people away.
The app, which is available in English and Spanish, is aimed particularly at Latinos, who are more likely to access information via a smartphone than using a computer. Most of the features are also available online, at citizenshipworks.org, which also has Chinese and Vietnamese versions.
O’Brien hopes the app will let nonprofits assist applicants more smoothly—for example, by ensuring that people only apply when they are eligible. At the moment, up to half of those attending preparation workshops aren’t actually ready, he says.
Pro Bono Net also developed a web site for last year’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects so-called "Dreamers" from deportation. Out of around 1.4 million eligible people, about 300,000 have been accepted so far, and, of those, about 20,000 used the Own The Dream web site.
O’Brien says technology can help demystify immigration and protect vulnerable people from back-street operators looking to make a quick buck. Everything on the sites and apps has gone through "plain language review," ensuring a fifth grader can read it, and the listed legal services have all been fully vetted.
Still, if immigration reform does pass, processing more than 10 million people won’t be easy. The law would open up the system to the biggest influx of applicants since the 1980s, when several million Central Americans entered. The "undocumented" are also more dispersed than other groups, making the job of assisting applicants more complicated.
That’s why services like Pro Bono Net’s could be important. "We’re exercising the muscles and learning the ways this is going to work," O’Brien says. "We’re really thinking about how to help nonprofits scale-up services in the event of legalization."