Will FileRight Be The TurboTax Of Immigration For DACA?

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Students wait in line for assistance with paperwork for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California, August 15, 2012. The U.S. government began accepting applications on Wednesday from young illegal immigrants seeking temporary legal status under relaxed deportation rules announced by the Obama administration. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

This month millions of Americans are feeling the stress of filling out tax forms on TurboTax, but not A.J. Perkins. Perkins, a certified tax preparer, is worried about another set of government forms: his Colombian fiancée’s immigration form, also known as a I-129F.

“I’m a CPA, so I deal with paperwork all the time,” said Perkins from a cafe in Santa Fe New Mexico, where he lives and works. “But immigration forms are daunting, even for me.” Perkins could hire a lawyer to walk him through it, but that could cost him hundreds of dollars, and his fiancée’s case is pretty straight forward. If he were a layman trying to do taxes, he’d probably use something like TurboTax.

But where is the “TuboTax” for immigration I-129Fs and other paperwork from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)? Immigration forms are immensely complex. DACA renewal applicants, for example, will have to answer more than 100 questions when the new forms are released on February 19th. Where is their step-by-step instruction? Even in straight forward cases, many are bound to make mistakes.

Modernizing Immigration Forms, Like Tax Forms

Like TurboTax did with taxes, private companies like FileRight, ClearPath, and Bridge U.S. are making immigration forms fillable online.

“We offer value for people who feel that they fill [their immigration paperwork] on their own,” said Casey Berman, CCO of FileRight, in an interview with the Latin Times. “Our software helps guide people in a self-directed way.” FileRight’s ultimate goal, says Berman is “to help people” like it’s more than 30 employees, which include DACA recipients, immigrant in-laws, and victims of Notarios--paralegals and other non-lawyers who overpromise on immigration aid.

Many, like Berman, got involved in the immigration space in part by the experiences of close family members. FileRight’s CEO and Founder, Cesare Alessandrini, helped his parents complete their immigration paperwork when he was a young boy, later assisting his South American-born fiancée and her family complete their forms. His ultimate goal?  Reduce the number of immigration forms that are returned to applicants each year by USCIS due to being incomplete or incorrectly filled out -- currently 9% of about 6.5 million forms.

At the core of FileRight’s value proposition is that their service is cheaper than a lawyer and more reliable than a notario. Its service costs $99 dollars and includes a guarantee that the application will not be returned as incomplete. Also, FileRight openly admits that it’s a non-legal option, neither dispensing legal advice nor disparaging the need for lawyers.

“We’re just another option,” said Berman. “Lawyers play an important part” in immigration applications. Berman says that there are situations where applicants should consult a lawyer before using FileRight, such as if they have a criminal history. The company is considering partnering with lawyers to offer referral services for such cases. Like TurboTax, FileRight’s forms have a “[conditional] logic.” If applicants don’t seem eligible according to USCIS rules, “we won’t let them proceed.”

Why hasn’t USCIS merely implemented online forms? They’re trying, but very slowly, and with very few cases. The government’s own attempts at digitization is a program called the Electronic Immigration System (ELIS), named, ostensibly, in honor of Ellis Island. But while Ellis Island welcomed poor and huddled masses, USCIS ELIS offers immigrants only three forms: replacing a Green Card, applying for an Alien Entrepreneur visa, and applying to transfer status from one visa to another.

ELIS is not ready to serve people getting married or those applying for Deferred Action, DAPA and DACA. Also, USCIS isn’t looking to source it’s digital needs to software companies, as the IRS did with companies like Turbo Tax.

“Early on in the development of this system, USCIS explored the possibility of electronic data interchange between USCIS ELIS and third-party systems, but ultimately decided to concentrate on the core system to ensure it supports our operations and electronic filing,” said a USCIS spokesperson in an email to the Latin Times.

According to an article by the Washington Post, FileRight lobbied federal officials to grant it and other companies authorization--“electronic data interchange”-- to send their clients’ applications directly to the government. As it stands now, FileRight users have to print applications and mail them in themselves.

Eliminating Notario Fraud

Yet third party providers like FileRight don’t need “electronic data interchange” in order to aid immigrants with paperwork. Unlike tax preparers, companies like FileRight don’t need any federal permission to operate. Online, tax-preparers live in the same unregulated space that spawned Notarios in the analog world. It’s ripe for abuse and fraud.

Notarios--set up in little shops around the country--have been exploiting immigrants with misinformation that stretches from unrealistic promises to outright fraud and extortion.

“There’s no nationwide regulatory scheme for all 50 states [for immigration document preparers],” said Berman. FileRight complies with state laws, of which there are a few, including California, New York, and other states. Yet wouldn’t federal regulation be a burden for his startup? Absolutely not.

“We would love that type of oversight, that type of regulation,” he said, referring to tax preparer oversight. Not only would it allow the company’s clients to skip the printing-and-sending step, but “It would go a long way in rooting out notario fraud,” which Berman says hurts everyone: immigrants, the USCIS, and companies like his that are trying to help in an honest way.

FileRight isn’t the only company offering immigration application help online, but it is the least expensive for DAPA applicants ($99). There’s Clearpath ($199.95), which specializes in business immigration, and Bridge US ($150), which also offers access to immigration attorneys (an extra $600).

The USCIS will release updated DACA forms on February 19th and DAPA forms some time in May.

“We’ll be ready with online forms, probably on the same day [that USCIS releases the forms],” said Berman. No word yet on the I-129F for A.J. Perkins.

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