When Fredy Arce learned his immigration lawyer was doubling her fees to renew his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, Arce decided to shop around.
The 25-year-old Elgin man must renew his DACA status every two years to avoid deportation to Mexico, which he left when he was 1.
And now, besides the basic DACA filing fee of $495, there was that new, higher $400 legal bill.
“It’s crazy to be paying that much,” said Arce, who’s working his way through college without financial aid.
But then his girlfriend found Immigrants Like Us, a nonprofit group, on Facebook. Arce got in touch and, with their free service, renewed his DACA status for just the filing fee. Started by two lawyers, and supported by grants and donations, Immigrants Like Us aims to do “90% of the work that lawyers do,” said co-founder Jonathan Petts.
He compared their approach to online systems for filing tax returns. Immigrants Like Us has a similar automated system to help people complete complicated immigration forms. People answer a series of questions, and the answers are used to generate a completed application.
Lawyers then review the application for anything that might hinder its approval.
On its website, Immigrants Like Us emphasizes it is not a law firm and does not provide legal advice.
“Our role is to help people fill out their applications and to review [the application] to make sure it looks good,” Petts said.
This means the organization doesn’t need an accredited representative on the team — that is, someone recognized by the Department of Justice as able to provide immigration legal services. Still, Immigrants Like Us plans to hire one.
“Even though it’s not necessary, there’s a prestige benefit,” Petts said. It hasn’t happened yet because “we’re a very small team with limited resources.”
While people can fill out an application on their own, the risk of being declined is high. According to co-founder Ben Jackson, this is often due to small mistakes, such as leaving a box blank instead of putting “N/A.” Jackson said everyone they’ve worked with so far has had their application approved.
Before working with the nonprofit, though, applicants answer a few questions online to spot any complicating factors that would require them to use an immigration lawyer. That includes first-time DACA applicants.
The organization covers naturalization services, DACA renewals and green card applications nationwide, working primarily online.
In July, the Trump administration announced that filing fees for several common immigration applications would be more than doubled, effective Oct. 2. Applying for U.S. citizenship, for example, will cost $1,160, up from $640 — an 81% jump.
Most applicants still must pay standard immigration filing fees, though they could qualify for a fee waiver. Immigrants Like Us can help prepare fee waiver applications and is also building a network of other organizations offering grants.
Arce at first felt “a little out of my comfort zone” submitting the form by himself. Still, he said, the process was quick, and he would use Immigrants Like Us again.
The organization was created in November 2019 by the Boston-based Petts and Jackson, a law school student in Chicago. The two are united in their aim to make parts of their profession redundant through technology.
Immigrants Like Us is partly based on Petts’ experience starting the tech nonprofit Upsolve, which helps people through the often expensive process of filing for bankruptcy.
Both founders aim “as quickly as possible step back and bring immigrants forward,” said Jackson, and build an organization that “reflect[s] the users we’re trying to help.”
In this vein, their director of outreach is Harvard student Fernando Urbina, who was born in Chicago and whose mother emigrated from Mexico.
“She went through a very complicated naturalization process,” Urbina said of his mother.
“I remember she would spend hours studying and on top of that filling out [forms],” said Urbina. This made him realize he wanted “to make sure that these services are as accessible and as streamlined as possible.”
The nonprofit hopes to expand its work to help lawyers working with asylum seekers, as well as people escaping crime or who were brought to the United States through human trafficking.
Immigrants Like Us also provides written resources applicants can use to determine their answers to specific questions, such as how to prove relationship to a half-sibling.