On busy weeks, Fresno immigration attorney Nathan Brown has done 30 or more consultations for immigrant residents hoping to become citizens. It’s often the same conversation with different people.
For simple cases, Brown felt the process could easily become automated to save time and money.
Cue GoCitizen, a free website and mobile application for Apple or Android phones that Brown unveiled in July. He built the app and website himself, with coaching from a developer friend at IBM and using programs like PDF Builder to minimize the raw coding needed.
“In a way it makes my life easier as an attorney,” he said. “I can focus on complex cases.”
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GoCitizen helps people with easy citizenship and deferred action cases in English or Spanish. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, established by President Barack Obama under executive action, equips young unauthorized immigrants with a renewable Social Security number and work permit if they meet certain criteria.
Immigrants can use GoCitizen to figure out whether they are eligible for either of those benefits. Then, for $25, it guides them through the application process, translating “legalese,” as Brown calls it, to plain English. For another $100, he’ll review the documents before sending them to immigration authorities.
My value isn’t data entry. Human experience is the value attorneys bring.
Nathan Brown, Fresno immigration attorney
The app format appears to also bridge the “digital divide” – the gap between those who have access to digital technology and those who don’t. Whites, blacks and Latinos have similar rates of smartphone ownership, but the latter two groups rely more heavily on their phones for Internet access, according to an April Pew Research Center report.
Only a few people have used GoCitizen so far. One of them is Pearl Lara, 27, of Fresno, who used the app to renew her DACA benefits two weeks ago.
A different attorney charged Lara nearly $1,000 to help her apply for DACA in 2012 – on top of the $465 application fee that goes to the federal government. When it came time to renew her benefits last month, a friend told her about GoCitizen.
Lara was initially suspicious of the $125 price.
“I said, ‘This is a hoax. You’re playing around with me, right?’ ” she recalled.
But it worked. Lara said the questions were easy to understand and she was finished in no time. Now she’s helping two cousins renew their DACA benefits through the app.
Brown called the app a win-win for him and his clients. It saves him time filling out paperwork and saves them money.
In 2011, nearly two-thirds of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico who were eligible to become U.S. citizens had not taken that step. According to the Pew Research Center, Mexicans naturalize at half the rate of legal immigrants from all other countries combined for reasons including language and other personal barriers, not trying, and financial or administrative burdens.
Brown’s app only works for simple cases. After taking the eligibility quiz, immigrants with more complicated situations are directed to speak with an attorney. And Brown recommends that applicants have an attorney look over their paperwork – no matter how simple – to make sure it looks right.
“Immigration law is very complex,” he said. “Minor errors can result in deportation or just wasting your money.”
GoCitizen runs much like Turbo Tax does for tax filing. Similar immigration filing programs exist – such as Clearpath, File Right and Road to Status – but charge at least $100 to fill out the forms and are not run by attorneys.
Brown wants to partner with immigration groups to spread the word about his app. He hopes to expand GoCitizen to automate parts of simpler residency cases, such as EB-3 or H-1B employment visas, and make it available in more languages.