Building a ‘TurboTax’ to Streamline Immigration Paperwork

Hopeful immigrants to the U.S. stand in line before an immigration official at New York’s Ellis Island on May 27, 1920 Photograph by Bettmann/Corbis

Back in 2005, when Michael Petrucelli was getting ready to leave his job as acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), he gave a speech at the annual convention of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “I began my remarks by saying U.S. immigration law is equal in length and lack of transparency to the U.S. tax code,” he says. “Yet no one has created TurboTax for immigration law yet.”

Petrucelli, who processed visa requests as a young Department of State official in the Dutch Antilles, left the federal government that year. He followed the well-trod path from public service to the private sector, taking a job in government affairs at energy management company GridPoint. Still, the idea of streamlining how foreigners file immigration forms stuck with him. In 2008, Petrucelli launched Clearpath, to try “to take this process and move it from the 19th century to the present day.”

Five years later the company has concluded a beta-testing period and is pitching a plain-language, step-by-step process for completing H1-B visa, green card, citizenship, and other common immigration paperwork. Users follow a series of prompts to complete documents in English or Spanish, then print forms and mail them in. That can save applicants from wasting time on basic errors—failing to check the box indicating an applicant’s sex is surprisingly common, Petrucelli says—and help navigate confusing government language. The most expensive service Clearpath offers costs about $200.

Automated hand-holding won’t help all applicants, says Stephen Yale-Loehr, an adjunct professor at Cornell Law School who practices immigration law at Ithaca (N.Y.)-based Miller Mayer. That’s because an immigration lawyer’s initial task is often to help clients choose between several avenues to getting the visa they want. “A person may have more than one option to get a green card,” Yale-Loehr says. “Solutions like Clearpath are probably good once you know what route you should take,” he says. Nor is Clearpath the only player in the immigration software game. Companies including INS Zoom, LawLogix, and Tracker offer case management tools for immigration lawyers and large employers.

The pool of potential customers for the company is large. Lawyers filed about 2.2 million immigration forms in the year ended September 2012, according to USCIS. At least 4.9 million forms were filed without an attorney. If Congress ever passes comprehensive immigration reform, some of the 11 million people who could have a path to citizenship would also be the kind of customer Clearpath is targeting.

The 12-employee New York company, which has raised $4.75 million in venture funding, had only about 2,600 unique visitors to its site this month, according to Petrucelli. He’s hoping partnerships, including a recent one with Esperanza, a network of 12,000 Hispanic clergy, churches, and community leaders, will help make more immigrants aware of Clearpath.

Completing an immigration form is an emotional experience, Petrucelli says, so it’s important to convince users they’re getting advice from people who know what they’re doing. “Reading my bio is great,” he says. But “from a customer perspective, when an organization they’re dealing with on a daily basis vets us, that’s a much more important thing.”

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