Mobile App Helps Immigrants Apply for Citizenship

PHOTO: Irina Alexandra Tone holds her new citizenship documents following a naturalization ceremony July 2, 2013 in New York. 150 immigrants, as part of similar events nationwide to mark the July Fourth holiday to the oath of citizenship.

Forget about Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. A new mobile app aims to help green card holders apply for American citizenship.

CitizenshipWorks already exists in website form. The site, which is partnered with several immigration advocacy and legal support organizations, prides itself on being a one-stop-shop to help legal permanent residents living in the United States naturalize, and they've got a 2012 Webby award ("Best Law Site of 2012") to back it up. On Tuesday, the information they offer became available on smartphones, too.

The free app is available in English and Spanish. Like the site, it helps people determine whether they qualify for citizenship, find legal help if they need it, and study for the English and civics tests that are part of the naturalization process.

"It struck us that a mobile app was better suited to help people with preparation to come in and get services," said Mark O'Brien, executive director of Pro Bono Net, one of the nonprofits behind the new app. "It's accessible all the time."

The naturalization process can be complicated. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, only a third of all Mexican immigrants and about two-thirds of non-Mexican immigrants who are eligible to become citizens have actually naturalized.

Mobile technology can help alleviate some of the confusion, O'Brien said. Other advocacy groups that use the CitizenshipWorks site tell him that some people come in without all the documents they need.

The app allows immigrants to provide a bit of information about their specific situation and then go through a customized checklist of the documents they need to provide. It also includes a game that people can play to study for the tests, and a way for people to see whether they've established residency by inputting and tracking trips abroad.

There are other apps on the market that offer games that help people study for the tests or offer legal advice, but as far as O'Brien knows, this is the only app that offers what he calls a "holistic" approach to the process -- one that includes legal advice, test preparation and everything in between.

While the site and app are designed to help people who already hold green cards, the developers say the approach could be used to help the nation's more than 11 million undocumented immigrants apply for citizenship if the current immigration reform bill on Capitol Hill becomes law.

The last major reforms to America's immigration system came in the mid-1980s, long before the smartphone era. Just 40 percent of the 2.7 million undocumented immigrants who received green cards as a result of that reform effort had become citizens by 2009.

With tech companies well aware that Hispanics -- who make up most of the nation's undocumented immigrants -- are tech-savvy mobile phone users, don't be surprised if similar efforts crop up in the future.

"Nonprofits are really interested in [the app]," O'Brien said, "as a way to engage potential applicants."

His organization is working with others to launch another app called Pocket DACA, which will be aimed at young undocumented immigrants applying for deportation relief.

Using apps, he said, is a way for nonprofits to reach young people, and those young people provide a bridge to older generations who, even when they are eligible, may be unsure of how to apply for citizenship.

Apps also help bridge geographic divides. Nonprofits played a major role in helping people naturalize after the 1986 reform. But people were concentrated in places like Los Angeles and Houston. Now, immigrants are more spread out and harder to reach in person. Mobile technology is a way to fix that.

A string of new apps launched by app developers eager to tap a new market leaves open the potential for misinformation, however. That, O'Brien says, is why it's so important for vetted nonprofits to step up to the plate.

"The nonprofit sector needs to say, 'We need to be able to play in this same space, and reach people, and have trusted sources of info available,'" he said.

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