Nonprofit offers online help, and hope, to low-income immigrants

Christel Deskins

Jonathan Petts, cofounder of Immigrants Like Us, said he was inspired to guide others through the complexities by watching his father, an immigrant from the United Kingdom, pursue the American dream. The legal forms “have multiplied in length and complexity, so now a basic immigration application is up to 100 […]

Jonathan Petts, cofounder of Immigrants Like Us, said he was inspired to guide others through the complexities by watching his father, an immigrant from the United Kingdom, pursue the American dream.

The legal forms “have multiplied in length and complexity, so now a basic immigration application is up to 100 pages of legalese that would be really hard for a super-well-educated person to complete accurately,” Petts said. “As a result, people need legal help to know what they’re eligible for and to apply . . . but so few people can afford to pay an immigration lawyer.”

The organization’s team is composed of eight students and lawyers who all have experience with immigration matters. Their goal is to guide disadvantaged immigrants through the complicated and expensive legal processes. Those earning below the state’s median income or seeking relief get free support and expert reviews of their applications.

“The goal is to serve low-income immigrants who are eligible for [legal] status, but can’t get it because they can’t afford legal help,” Petts said. “We believe that the solution is combining technology with lawyers.”

Since its founding in November, the organization has served hundreds of undocumented residents, students, and other immigrants by using online technology to guide applicants, rather than requiring lawyers to help one person at a time. The data and information are then reviewed by experts to ensure accuracy.

“At Immigrants Like Us, we believe that immigrants make America great,” ILU’s website says. “We’re on a mission to make immigrating to the United States easy, safe, and free by combining the power of technology with attorneys to help you achieve the American dream.”

Website users will find a screening tool to determine what status they qualify for and their risk of being denied. ILU screens out difficult cases involving criminal records and past immigration problems. If a person is deemed eligible for DACA renewal, naturalization, or family green cards, they can then use ILU’s software to prepare the documents.

Petts shared a story of an immigrant from Vietnam who held a green card for many years but had not been naturalized, because of the legal costs and her fear of hostility toward immigrants. With the organization’s help, she was told she could be naturalized free of cost.

She’s now a citizen who can vote, and “her sense of feeling unwanted in the US and feeling like she wasn’t welcome here has totally changed,” Petts said. “Now she sees a path for her to be part of our democracy.”

ILU’s website also offers guides to topics such as how to renew DACA status and the latest developments about who is eligible for visas.

“We’ve been trying to really increase our services during COVID, because people are unsafe,” said Lavinia Teodorescu, a native of Romania who is a junior at Harvard College and the organization’s outreach director. “If someone is at risk of being deported during a pandemic to a place where they don’t have a house, that’s very, very risky.”

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