The online platform Citizenshipworks was launched in 2011 to make applying for citizenship easier and more accessible. It was designed by three non-profits, Immigration Advocates Network, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Pro Bono Net, to provide in-person naturalization service providers with an online tool to help complete naturalization applications.
The world has turned upside down since then because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While people shelter in place, remote legal services are the only way to keep the naturalization momentum going. The Citizenshipworks platform and team have been at the ready and in demand for the New Americans Campaign partners. We reached out to Sandra Sandoval Chavarria, Citizenshipworks Program Manager, to learn more about how the online platform is meeting this moment.
New Americans Campaign: How has the world of virtual review changed from your perspective?
Sandra Sandoval Chavarria: We already had in place virtual review partners, Advancing Justice LA, GMHC, BPSOS, and several IRC offices. If someone starts an N-400 application online through Citizenshipworks and has a problem, we refer them to one of these partners who provide this remote service.
But we have seen changes. For example, there are a number of folks that are coming in on their own. During regular times, it was usually about a quarter to 30% of the visitors to the site. But during this COVID-19 period, about half of our traffic is made up of what we call DIY (do it yourself) applicants. We will frequently refer them to a partner for legal support. The other half of the traffic is from our partners who use Citizenshipworks as the starting point for applicants.
New Americans Campaign: But now the world is completely different. Are more partners reaching out to you?
Sandra Sandoval Chavarria: Yes. We hosted a series of four webinars at the end of February and the beginning of March, where we shared the experience of our virtual review partners. There were over a hundred people who attended each of the sessions. Our partners have been really creative with how they are using Citizenshipworks, or how they might change their workflow. I think the pandemic has motivated partners to think about what these remote services should look like.
We’ve always encouraged partners to think about a process in which they provide some sort of service over the phone, whether it’s getting people to start on Citizenshipworks, or to begin the application ahead of a workshop event. That way, if a problem comes up, they can reach out beforehand.
New Americans Campaign: Do you have examples?
Sandra Sandoval Chavarria: One example that comes to mind is how the Immigrant Welcome Center in Indianapolis and the virtual review team at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA are working together. The Immigrant Welcome Center is a NAC affiliate who needed more remote legal capacity during this time. So, the Immigrant Welcome Center will help the applicant work their way through the application and then they will refer them to Carolyn Kim and her team at Advancing Justice for a final legal review and next steps.
We also have partners like Arkansas United who works with Michigan United. They’ve been a really good example of partners that have built their own workflows in which they incorporate volunteers. For people who might not be tech savvy, Arkansas United is able to help clients create their accounts over the phone and answer basic questions. Ultimately someone at Michigan United reviews the application. While aspects of Citizenshipworks and a workshop model worked really well, we are trying to replicate it in a way that works over the phone and still serves their populations.
New Americans Campaign: Since the pandemic began keeping everyone at home, have you noticed changes in the ways that the lawful permanent residents, themselves, are coming to Citizenshipworks, or accessing and completing the N-400 form?
Sandra Sandoval Chavarria: We have always wondered whether people would be hesitant about services delivered over the phone or video. Since the pandemic, people are less hesitant than before. It may be because they see their children going to school over Zoom, but I also think they are more comfortable with getting services over the phone from a legal partner. It makes sense to them now. We give the applicant context, and we explain the process and the steps toward completion. But there are still barriers. People don’t necessarily have access to a printer, and maybe they don’t feel comfortable going to a FedEx. The big barrier that we’re now facing, of course, is the upcoming increase in the naturalization application fee. We hear people say, “I’ll just wait until the office opens up again,” and we inform them they have to balance that against waiting too long and paying a new, higher fee.
New Americans Campaign: Now that many people are becoming acquainted with videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, how does the video component on Citizenshipworks compare?
Sandra Sandoval Chavarria: You can certainly look at each other by video on Citizenshipworks, but our platform doesn’t screen share. We are looking at the needs of partners and taking notes and trying to figure out what would add to the legal review experience, for example sharing documents in real time. It’s something that we’ve continued to evolve. We are lucky to be part of Pro Bono Net. They are always learning from their other virtual services and that comes in handy when we think about legal consultation as a whole.
New Americans Campaign: What is on your wish list moving forward? Particularly now that Citizenshipworks has grown in importance as a tool.
Sandra Sandoval Chavarria: For us, it would be something to help leverage non-legal volunteers, who are perhaps on the phone, helping an applicant complete their form. It might be separate accounts or a breakout room that doesn’t need to link to Citizenshipworks accounts and doesn’t need a password. This wasn’t necessary during an in-person workshop, but volunteer accounts have become more important during quarantine. We’d like to get the volunteers incorporated in a more official, systems-oriented way.
New Americans Campaign: What are some of the biggest lessons that you think you’ve learned from this whole process?
Sandra Sandoval Chavarria: For me, it’s taking it back to some of the basics. I think we did a good job when we started with our webinar series about remote services. But looking back on it now, I might have expanded the discussion of basic technology more. For example, when you encrypt emails that you’re sharing, what does encryption mean? Our partners look to us for that information because we do the technical work. I would also like to simplify the definition of remote services. I think for applicants and partners remote services sounds really abstract. Virtual review sounds even bigger and more complex. It’s intimidating even though it may just mean that you can call someone on the phone if you don’t have video.
New Americans Campaign: Is there a more inviting name for virtual review?
Sandra Sandoval Chavarria: We go back and forth over this. Apply from Home? Citizenship services in the palm of your hand? Over the phone citizenship consultations? Most people either have a phone or maybe someone in their household has a phone. You can create an account and access Citizenshipworks with your phone. You don’t even need an email address. I think the legal field has always been hesitant with new technology, but it’s been great to see how NAC partners are open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. There’s no single right way of doing remote assistance.
New Americans Campaign: Back to the LPRs themselves; is there any myth busting you can do from the perspective of an applicant?
Sandra Sandoval Chavarria: We are finding ways to connect people to technology during this time. Perhaps a relative or a friend has a phone. We’ve also seen applicants who are being assisted by family members. We’ve heard, “I’m helping my husband,” or “I need help from my children.”
We’ve also tried to make Citizenshipworks as simple as possible. If you go to our website, there’s a little help button at the bottom of the page that leads to customer support for anybody needing help. I think we’ve seen applicants become more proactive around advocating for themselves, telling us they need help with some aspect of their case, and we can then refer them. I think in general, the idea of receiving services online for free sometimes feels like it’s too good to be true. Not all partners provide free services, some have a sliding scale, but many of our remote partners do provide their services for free. Also, I often find that a lot of people don’t know about the fee waiver. Many partners try to promote it, but the fee remains a big barrier. We sent out a message about the application fee increase and to let people know that they may qualify for a fee waiver.
New Americans Campaign: Citizenshipworks performs so well for the N-400; I’ve heard practitioners wishing for it to work for the fee waiver form as well. Is that on the horizon?
Sandra Sandoval Chavarria: It’s certainly been on the horizon. But every time we’ve attempted to incorporate it, the fee waiver was changing so we would decide to wait. It is something that we continue to consider and hope to add to the site. It is something that partners would like to see so we are working on ways to make it happen.
New Americans Campaign: When it comes to handling the new challenges that came with this pandemic, what are your proudest of?
Sandra Sandoval Chavarria: I’m really proud of how we were able to respond. As partners started closing their offices, a few people reached out and we saw a wider need to respond. The pandemic also brought a number of people back to Citizenshipworks, to join the conversation around virtual assistance and how to serve specific populations.
I’m also really proud of the partners themselves. They began taking chances, whether it was through Citizenshipworks or another platform. I’ve heard from the field and from partners themselves about how hard it is to rethink their own processes. We were able to step up to the plate to provide tools, best practices, and other resources and to leverage our knowledge from both Citizenshipworks and Pro Bono Net. What makes me really happy are some of the partnerships and workflows that have emerged and that we’ve been able to connect virtual review partners with community-based organizations that don’t have legal capacity.