One word described Luis Aponte’s experience living as an undocumented immigrant in the United States: helpless.
“Not [being] able to drive, not being able to travel or those things. Those things really wear you down,” says Aponte, a 40-year-old project manager for a parking company in Jersey City, N.J. “While I was here without documents, my father passed away, and I was unable to go and see him. Things like that — that makes you sad.”
After marrying a U.S. citizen, Aponte spent thousands of dollars trying to become one himself. He visited multiple immigration lawyers, but the bureaucracy — and the hefty price tag — of the American immigration system made it seem like an opportunity out of reach.
Aponte’s experience isn’t unique. Millions of undocumented immigrants and those with expired temporary visas live in this country because the process of becoming an American citizen can take decades and cost tens of thousands of dollars. It’s this flawed system that inspired a Canadian to create a tech workaround that eliminates the minutiae of immigration law and makes it simpler (and cheaper) for migrants to achieve U.S. citizenship.
“I started looking into the process, Googling around, trying to figure it out, and after a couple of hours of banging my head against the wall, I gave up and started looking into hiring an immigration lawyer … but it cost me thousands of dollars,” says Jeremy Peskin, co-founder of Borderwise, a digital platform that drastically reduces the time required to fill out immigration forms — from hours to just 10 minutes — by turning the mounds of paperwork into a simple survey.
Since its launch in 2016, Borderwise has helped hundreds of immigrants begin the application process.
For years, Peskin tried to gain citizenship, holding employment on what he describes as an “alphabet soup” of work visas. After marrying his wife (a American citizen), he confronted the problems of the immigration system face-to-face.
“I sat with my immigration lawyer in his office, and we started discussing my case. And I could see as he sort of walked through a decision tree that he had spent years learning to figure out exactly which documents and forms were required to compile my application because there’s potentially over 12 different forms, over 40 pages of paper work,” Peskin says. “I realized that if we could have an expert design a piece of software, we could use technology to dramatically streamline the process of preparing these applications.”
Working to bring his idea of the American Dream to fruition, Peskin enlisted the help of his own immigration attorney, James Pittman, who at first was hesitant of the idea.
“Immigration law is way too complex for that,” Pittman recalls saying. “There’s [sic] just too many exceptions. No matter how much you program a software, you can never duplicate a human being in all of the complexity and nuance.”
Peskin and Pittman looked to machine-learning technology to solve for the intricacies, complications and problem solving that immigration lawyers typically handle.
The result? A two-pronged platform: one portion used by immigrants themselves who want to become a citizen through family sponsorship; the other, a cloud-based version used by law firms. Both streamline immigration paperwork, while also giving those applying for citizenship more insight into how the process works.
By eliminating much of the work typically performed by attorneys, Borderwise has made the entire process more affordable.
“The lowest an immigration lawyer would ever charge for a family-based green card application is $2,000, and frequently, they would charge $5,000,” Peskin says. “The median income for an immigrant in the U.S. is $40,000. So for many just preparing a green card application, it’s close to 10 percent of their annual wages.”
Borderwise charges just $500 — almost 90 percent less than traditional methods.
Aponte, who used Borderwise, says the platform was simple, cheap and easy. What’s more, the process evoked strong emotions about his father, who passed away in Aponte’s home country of Colombia.
“I’m 100 percent sure he would have been super happy … with my wife and my beautiful family,” he says. “He would have been extremely happy.”
The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the AllStar Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.
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