Chicago startup creates online resource for immigrants seeking legal services

BY SANDRA GUY

sandraguykolina@gmail.com

A Chicago-based legal aid organization and a technology startup company have partnered in a first-of-its-kind initiative to refer immigrants to pro bono and low-cost services if they qualify.

Illinois Legal Aid Online, which connects people to legal resources when they can't afford a lawyer, has teamed up with Road to Status, a software company founded in June 2016 to help those in need gain access to immigration help regardless of their income. Road to Status provides online immigration document preparation tools and partner attorney services to individuals, businesses, attorneys and non-profits.

People who need help with immigration services may use a free online eligibility checker on the website IllinoisLegalAid.org to find out whether they’re eligible for U.S. immigration benefits.

The immigration tech site’s team of legal experts used algorithms and artificial intelligence to set up the system to identify whether users have a straightforward path to the most common benefits – United States citizenship, green cards, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) renewals, and travel parole, said John Paul Demirdjian, chief operating officer of Road to Status.

The website lets applicants go through the eligibility questions in English or Spanish from any device. Certified human linguists and translators worked alongside Road to Status’ legal and technology teams to ensure the translations of the software are contextually and legally accurate.

“We give them a result that says, based on how you’ve answered these questions, here’s the next step,” he said. “We carefully screen for underlying issues related to the applicants’ background and criminal history and warn them that attorney involvement may be recommended to proceed. And we have ‘hard stops’ in the process, if someone has committed a felony or has an outstanding issue that needs to be addressed, the system directs that person to an attorney consultation option."

The key goal is to provide access to people who fall within an enormous legal-services gap—an estimated 75 to 80 percent of people who need legal services but fail to qualify for free help, yet who cannot afford private attorneys—worth an estimated $437 million annually, according to Thomson Reuters.

“Many can’t afford $3,000 or $5,000 for the private attorney route, yet they make too much to qualify for legal aid,” Demirdjian said. “The largest underserved group makes just under the national poverty guidelines, disqualifying them from many free or low-cost resources. To solve this, a blend of technology plus people is necessary to deliver quality help at a scale that can make a difference.”

“Our company mission is to make immigration support services affordable and more accessible,” he said. “Nearly one in six people who live in America is an immigrant.”

Anyone who accesses the program online at IllinoisLegalAid.org gets 30 percent off software services they use. Low-cost attorney review services for applications completed via the service start at $99, and are conducted by a licensed immigration attorney.

The service is unveiled as protesters last weekend marched in Texas' first major protest against a border wall, according to the Associated Press. The marchers said they may have no influence over President Trump’s plan, but they hope to influence Congress members who’ve yet to approve a wall’s financing.