James Pittman and Jeremy Peskin are relatively calm when asked about the recent executive order banning all refugees and citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Conspicuously so, in fact. They are the founders of Borderwise, a startup that has developed software intended to help streamline and demystify the truly confounding process of applying for a Green Card or refugee status, and they seem like they would be incensed about President Trump’s order.
Instead, they offer extensive, considerate analysis of the ban. When pressed a little, though, they admit they took the news hard. “Yeah, we were more worked up over the weekend,” says Peskin, explaining that they’ve had some time to decompress. “That’s actually when we were developing our plan.”
And it’s a hell of a plan for a little startup: Starting this week, Borderwise is allowing immigrants whose households make under $30,000 to prepare their Green Card application through the company’s software; have their application reviewed by a lawyer; and receive further legal help through their program for one single dollar. Peskin says that it’s not only a response to the recent executive order, but also a reaction to what he says is the anti-immigrant flavor that this country is taking on.
“I think that in the past six to 12 months, we’ve seen increasing hostility to immigrants,” says Peskin. “The events of this past weekend sort of pushed us over the edge and forced us to really consider exactly what we were going to implement to help.”
If Peskin sounds driven, it’s because he’s got some skin in the game. He’s actually a recent immigrant from Toronto, who got his J.D. at Penn and worked at a pair of high-powered corporate law firms before founding Borderwise. It was actually his difficulty in obtaining a Green Card that led him to start the firm: The process, he says, was perplexing, unintuitive and remarkably strenuous, even for a guy with a mind as high-powered as his. After becoming Green Card-eligible upon marrying his wife, a U.S. citizen, Peskin put in calls to a slew of immigration lawyers, few of whom sounded like they’d be ideal advocates. Peskin found his man in Pittman, an immigration counselor with more than 10 years of experience who helped guide him through the process.
Still, said Peskin, it was kind of a luck-of-the-draw situation. Few people who are seeking a Green Card have the cash to go lawyer-hunting, and fewer still have the luxury of time to sift through potential representatives. The process, Peskin thought, was difficult almost to the point of absurdity—and certainly to the point of exclusion, considering the fees and time commitment involved.
Let’s just run down some of the costs: Most visa applications range in cost from $340 to $600. If that initial application is cleared, processing costs range from $230 on the low end to nearly $1,100, if going through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). What’s more, Peskin says, the process is notoriously opaque, perhaps especially for people who aren’t native English speakers, and it is recommended by nearly every immigration expert that those seeking a Green Card get legal help in the filing and petitioning. At up to $300 an hour for legal fees, this is often the most expensive part of the whole process.
Which is to say: It’s not at all so easy to legally enter this country as our President and his friends say it is. In fact, it’s a miserable slog that often requires biometric logging and invasive background checks. It’s as expensive as it is exhausting. So Peskin devised the idea of Borderwise, a kind of TurboTax for immigrants seeking legal status, for which they pay a flat fee of $500 to arrange their paperwork online, and receive further consultation for $50 an hour.
“As we were navigating the process, I saw ways in which technology could substantially streamline it, and make it more accessible,” says Peskin. “I came at it from an immigrant standpoint, which is that it’s really tough and expensive for an immigrant to navigate the process. James [Pittman] thought about it from an immigration lawyer’s standpoint, which is that the lawyers spend an enormous amount of time preparing casework for immigration applications.”
Peskin is optimistic about how Borderwise software will defray the cost of filing Green Card petitions for future applicants. “Attorneys will hopefully be able to pass on the cost-savings that our software provides” by streamlining their processes, he says.
Peskin says that since its public launch in autumn, over 100 Green Card applications have been prepared using Borderwise software. A couple dozen law firms currently use it , and Pittman sales are growing “slowly but steadily.” The company has already gone through three rounds of investment, which raised more than $250,000; Pittman and Peskin may seek one more round of funding. This spring and summer, they plan to take it on the immigration law convention circuit, where they hope it will get sufficient-enough traction to take it from small startup to booming business.
Most visa applications range in cost from $340 to $600. If that initial application is cleared, processing costs range from $230 on the low end to nearly $1,100. It is recommended by nearly every immigration expert that those seeking a green card get legal help. At up to $300 an hour, this is often the most expensive part of the whole process.
In the meantime, the company is reacting to the new administration with a $499 discount for low-income Green Card seekers, a pretty astonishing offer for a startup just getting off the ground. This is no free ride with Lyft or $15 off an order when you’ve ordered enough food with Grubhub to sustain an Italian wedding. This is lawyers offering an in-your-face, punk-rock challenge to the powers that be by trying to change the lives of immigrants. This is, more than anything, a couple of dudes foregoing potentially thousands of dollars for a greater purpose.
That’s right. A bastion of the growing resistance is being led in part by a pair of Philadelphia lawyers who are pitching an app to streamline legal processes. Hey, every revolution needs lawyers to do some crazy things.
Just ask Robespierre.