Applying For DACA? An App May Soon Be Able To Help

May 23, 2017

Like many millennials, Brook Kohn and Nathali Bertran met through a dating app. It took a few months before Bertran decided to tell Kohn about her immigration status.

"It wasn't the first thing she told me right when started dating," Kohn says, laughing.

Bertran had been living in the United States with DACA status—Deferred Action for Chidhood Arrivals—since her senior year of college. Born in Peru, she was just nine when her parents brought her to the U.S.

"In Peru, there was a lot of instability, and at the time that they took their decision to come over, both of my parents had lost their jobs," Bertran says.

In 2012, President Obama signed an executive order creating DACA. The immigration policy allows undocumented people to stay in the country legally if they were brought here by their parents at a young age.

To qualify, Bertran had to prove she had arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 and that she’s resided in the country ever since. Her and her parents spent weeks digging up documents at her parents’ home, the Peruvian embassy and her old high school.

"For me, it was really important that I apply for DACA," Bertran says. "I needed an identification. I needed to start doing my internships for college."

Brook Kohn and Nathali Bertran are two of the creators behind DACA Time, which can help undocumented residents like Bertan apply and reapply for legal status.
Credit Esther Honig

It wasn't until Bertran had to reapply, which is required every two years, that Kohn saw what the process was really like: complicated and time-consuming.

"And there are predatory attorney out there that will charge anywhere from $500 to $5,000," says Kohn.

A few months later, Kohn sat down to complete a similarly bureaucratic process that, until relatively recently, required professional help: taxes.

"I was finishing up my taxes on TurboTax, and it was easy," Kohn says. "I just clicked send and it was done."

TurboTax is a software many people use to file their state and federal income taxes, but it also gave Kohn an idea.

"I just thought, wow, what if DACA applicants had TurboTax to help them," Kohn says.

A screenshot of DACA Time's mobile application, as it looks in May.
Credit DACA Time

Kohn initially pitched this idea at the GiveBackHack, an event that promotes the use of technology to solve social issues, and won first place.

Now Kohn and Bertran are working with a team of developers to create DACA Time, a software that they say will cut the cost and time of the traditional DACA application by more than half.

Instead of hiring a lawyer, users pay $60 to complete the application's questionnaire and upload vital documents. There’s even an option to have an immigration lawyer review the application before it's submitted.

"We want to make DACA applications simple and affordable for as many DACA applicants as possible," Kohn says.

And there are lots of possible applicants out there. The Institute for Migration Policy says 1.9 million people could qualify for DACA, but since the program was founded in 2012, only 51 percent have actually applied.

Then there are thousands of people like Nathali Bertran who could use the software to reapply every two years.

For immigration attorney David Leopold, no computer will ever replace a lawyer. He hasn't seen the DACA Time software, but says online programs have tried to automate the green card, or asylum seeking, process in the past.

"And those have never supplanted lawyers, and the reason is because immigration law is extremely complicated," Leopold says.

Kohn acknowledges that the software has its limitations. People with more complex cases, including a criminal history, are encouraged not to use the software and consult a lawyer instead

Matthew Nierman is an immigration attorney and an advisor to DACA Time.
Credit Esther Honig

Matthew Nierman, an immigration attorney who’s advised Kohn on DACA Time, says the demand for immigration services means software will continue infringing on his field.

"Lawyers just can't keep all that information hoarded for themselves any longer," Nierman says. "People are more active than ever using the Internet to get the information they need to file their own applications."

For the next four months, the team at DACA Time will work with a social enterprise accelerator. They're competing with several other teams for the chance to win a $75,000 cash infusion for their project.

Of course, the biggest challenge to DACA Time could come from Washington. In his campaign for president, Donald Trump promised to repeal Obama's executive orders, including DACA. Only recently has he voiced some support for the thousands of young immigrants who rely on the program.

Kohn says if the software can help even a few people apply for DACA, it's worth the risk.

"These Dreamers, the ones I met at least, they just have the extra push because they know they have to do 120 percent, 150 percent, to make it in America," Kohn says.