By Megan R. Wilson - 10/15/14 06:00 AM EDT
A Silicon Valley company has been meeting with Obama administration officials about making immigration forms easier to fill out with a new online system that would resemble TurboTax.
Executives with FileRight, based in San Francisco, have made several trips to Washington since hiring lobbyists in January, scoring meetings with the White House, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and congressional offices in both parties, including House Republican leadership.
USCIS receives millions of immigration forms and applications each year, and that number would greatly increase if the more than 11 million individuals living illegally in the United States are someday allowed to register with the government.
“We think that we, as online immigration service providers, fill that gap,” said Cesare Alessandrini, FileRight’s founder and chief executive.
The future of changes to the immigration system remain unclear, with Congress deadlocked and President Obama vowing executive action after the elections.
But executives from FileRight say the government needs to prepare for a wave of new applicants now.
“When those people do come online and there’s a form for them to fill out, that’s a huge backlog,” Alessandrini said.
Alessandrini, a first-generation American born to Italian parents who immigrated in to New York in 1968, began tinkering with the technology behind FileRight in 2003.
He had specialized in marketing and international business, but it wasn’t until he began helping his now-wife, who is from Argentina, go through paperwork to stay in the United States that he considered working in the tech world.
“I had two options: I could have hired a lawyer for $5,000 — which I didn’t have — or I could do it myself because I’d always done” tax and insurance paperwork for his parents, Alessandrini recalled. “How hard could it be?”
After going through the application process, which he called confusing and complicated, Alessandrini said he had “the ah-ha moment” about moving the system into the digital age.
USCIS currently allows individuals and attorneys operating on behalf of immigrants to file some forms online, but it still operates mainly on a paper system.
The agency told The Hill that before it can accept third-party submissions — similar to how the IRS works with tax preparers like TurboTax — it must “concentrate on the core system to ensure it supports our operations and electronic filing.”
“There are no plans at this time to accept submissions from third-party systems,” a USCIS spokesman wrote in an email.
The FileRight system would allow users to fill out electronic forms, print them out and mail them to USCIS. The system also flags potential errors or components that might require the help of an attorney. It does not offer legal advice, but the company hopes to some day add a feature that directs customers to nonprofits and other groups offering reputable lawyers, said Casey Berman, FileRight’s chief strategy officer.
Immigrants still filling out paper forms might not be as lucky, as applications can be denied for even minor mistakes, such as spelling errors or writing on the wrong line.
“[The process is] hard on the agency, it’s hard on the applicant, it’s hard on the businesses that want to hire people,” said Stewart Verdery, a lobbyist at Monument Policy Group who represents FileRight.
It’s not the only company of its kind in the U.S., and it is looking to partner with similar businesses to pressure the government into accepting the third-party electronic submissions.
The company began its engagement in Washington by registering with Monument Policy Group and Franklin Square Group at the beginning of 2014.
Leading the effort at Monument Policy is Verdery, a former top Homeland Security Department official; and Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, the former staff director for the House Homeland Security Committee. Matt Tanielian, at the tech specialty shop Franklin Square, has helped supplement FileRight’s message on Capitol Hill.
Part of the company’s pitch is that making the forms easier to fill out could keep people from turning to fraudulent lawyers, also known as “notarios,” who trick immigrants into paying high fees for services they either do not or cannot deliver.
Berman says the issue drives many conversations the company has with officials.
“There’s a real opportunity for us and a lot of other players in the space to root out one of the real bad things, which is immigration fraud,” he said. “It’s something that we feel very strongly about, and we wanted to come here to find like-minded folks who could help us with that.”