This blog post was originally created and published by New Americans Campaign on their blog “From New Americans: Stories from across the Campaign.” Thank you to the New Americans Campaign for granting us permission to repost this piece

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 LAGMHC, 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.

On September 15th, the American Legal Technology Awards (ALTA) announced that Pro Bono Net received its inaugural Access to Justice award. The ALTA awards “honor companies and individuals who are making a difference in law through technology innovation,” noted Bob Ambrogi in his piece spotlighting the nominees.

The Access to Justice award recognizes “an organization or individual who has made a difference by helping the underserved access the legal system through the use of technology.” 

We would like to thank the American Legal Technology Award judges for lifting up the work of Pro Bono Net and other groups making a difference in law through innovation, and the exclusive sponsor for this category, ARAG Legal

Pro Bono Net’s mission is to bring the power of the law to all by building cutting-edge digital tools and fostering collaborations with the nation’s leading civil legal organizations. Since our founding two decades ago, our programs have been adopted in more than 40 states and US territories. Each day, they help thousands of people – particularly those living on the economic or social margins – understand their legal rights and options, find help in their local communities, and resolve life-changing legal problems. Our tools also strengthen the work of legal aid advocates and pro bono lawyers advocating on behalf of people whose home, family, safety or livelihood is at stake.   

Pro Bono Net’s work has been focused on how technology and information can help overcome known barriers to legal services access and delivery,” says Mark O’Brien, Pro Bono Net’s Executive Director. “It’s exciting work and we get to work with people who have tremendous ideas and are working on the front lines all around the country – we are really happy to have that work recognized and lifted up.”

LawHelp Interactive Garners Technology Award

The American Legal Technology Awards also recognized one of our national programs, LawHelp Interactive (LHI), with the final award, in the Technology category, for “technology applied in a new or novel way in the legal industry that achieves a significant benefit.” LHI is the only free, national online document assembly platform used across 40 states. It allows people representing themselves to create free and accurate court forms, simply and easily. It is also used by nonprofit legal aid programs and courts across the country to help people navigate complex processes – and to make those processes more accessible, responsive and person-centered.

At a moment when there’s widespread interest across the legal sector in technology’s potential to close the justice gap, LHI is already serving more than a million people a year. More than 660,000 forms were assembled using LHI in 2019, the highest volume in the platform’s history. Over the past decade, more than 5 million forms have been completed using LHI for issues such as child support and custody, domestic violence, debt collection, foreclosures, evictions, divorce and more. In the wake of pandemic related court closures and enforced social distancing, an average of 30,000 interactive interviews hosted on LHI are being used by self helpers and their advocates every week. 

LawHelp Interactive has done an amazing job of demonstrating how technology can help improve access to justice and is a shining example of how we can create scalable solutions for people that need legal help through technology,” says Jack Newton, Pro Bono Net Board member and CEO & co-founder of Clio.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic led courts to completely shutter or severely limit in-person services, LHI has helped many courts and nonprofit legal services providers ensure people in crisis can access, complete and easily file essential forms. The ALTA awards recognized one of  LHI’s partners, Rita Blandino, the Director of the Domestic Violence Division at DC Courts, with the Individual award for her leadership ensuring that DC residents seeking a protection order during the Covid-19 pandemic are able to have their request heard without risking their immediate safety or health. We recently profiled Rita’s work transforming the DC Courts Domestic Violence services to remote services in a matter of days at the start of the pandemic, using LawHelp Interactive. Another LHI-powered initiative to assist domestic violence survivors, the New York Family Offense Petition program, was a finalist in the Court category. 

LHI is operated in partnership with Ohio State Legal Services Association and has received long term support from the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program, as well as through significant in-kind donations of HotDocs Server Software from AbacusNext. LHI has also benefited from longstanding technology partnerships with the A2J Author™ team at the Center for Computer Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), and with industry leading online document assembly experts, Marc Lauritsen and Bart Earle of Capstone Practice System.

Pro Bono Net’s work is grounded in bringing justice community partners together to collaborate, network and invest in new ways to solve pressing common justice problems. We would like to thank the exclusive sponsor for the Technology category, Clio, and the organizers and judges of the inaugural American Legal Technology Awards. We’re so grateful for the support, and congratulate all of the nominees, finalists and winners of this year’s awards. Visit the America Legal Technology Awards’ website to view the full list of nominees, winners and acceptance videos. 

Pro Bono Net, in partnership with Lone Star Legal Aid and Neota Logic, is pleased to announce the launch of the Disaster Assistance & Recovery Tool (DART) in Texas. DART is a free web-based application that Lone Star’s community partners can use to screen low-income disaster survivors for potential legal issues and refer them to Lone Star Legal Aid for help. Lone Star Legal Aid is a legal aid provider based in Texas and the fourth largest free legal aid provider in the United States. 

The application was designed for use by staff at community-based organizations helping people affected by disasters, including Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda. In the aftermath of natural disasters, lawyers are well-positioned to provide help around issues like obtaining public benefits or assistance, housing, insurance claims, and employment. DART asks issue-specific questions in an interview format and determines which issues present a low, medium, and high legal risk. The DART concept is modeled off Pro Bono Net’s Legal Risk Detector, a web-based issue-spotting and referral app designed for use by social workers to conduct legal health “check ups” for older adults. 

“DART is an example of how technology can help reach more people through community advocates and workers. The tool flags legal issues that may emerge in the aftermath of a disaster and facilitates timely legal intervention that can be critical for a just recovery,” said Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz, Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager at Pro Bono Net. “We are so proud to have worked with Lone Star Legal Aid and Neota Logic on this project and support families recovering from the impact of natural disasters.”

Through DART, survivors can submit a pre-application form that Lone Star will receive after the interview is completed. Applicants can also choose whether to receive a report of their answers and overall risk. “DART promotes the understanding of the fact that most issues in our daily lives, specifically those that arise after a disaster, have a legal solution,” said Shrushti Kothari, Project Manager of National Disaster Resources and Content at Lone Star Legal Aid. “It simplifies the life of a case manager by providing a legal risk detector which helps determine when there is a legal issue and increases access to free legal services by providing an alternate method of application,” she explained. 

With the Atlantic Hurricane season underway and recent severe weather events in Iowa, California and other regions, we hope DART can serve as a model for other collaborations between legal aid programs and community partners to help detect and address the legal needs of disaster survivors.    

For a full announcement, please visit Lone Star Legal Aid’s blog post, Lone Star Legal Aid Launches Disaster Assistance and Recovery Tool (DART). To learn more about Pro Bono Net’s work, visit www.probono.net or email Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz at jortiz@probono.net

Driven by the belief that knowledge is power, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico’s attorneys, technologists, and operations talent provide critical legal help for vulnerable people across the island. In addition to leading Know-Your-Rights workshops, running a housing rights hotline, and managing Puerto Rico’s only online legal help portal, AyudaLegalPR.org, Ayuda Legal is also a social justice technology leader in their community.

“Conocer tus derechos es poder.”

Utilizing technology as a tool for legal empowerment is key strategy for the Ayuda Legal team. As pioneers in the Puerto Rican access to justice space, Ayuda Legal has always known that technology can be leveraged for the public good. To bolster this effort, Ayuda Legal gathered its powerful network of legal aid advocates, scholars, and allies in November of last year to host Puerto Rico’s first-ever Access to Justice and Technology Summit. The Summit followed a daylong Equity Design for Legal Empowerment workshop, by the Open Society Foundations.

A cohort of Pro Bono Net team members and partners (including Georgetown University Law Center and Alaska Legal Services Corporation) had an opportunity to participate in the summit to share and discuss how technology can be used in the pursuit of access to justice.

Why technology?

On the first day of the two-day summit, participants met at the picturesque Luis Muñoz Marín Foundation in San Juan. A key goal for the day was to build alignment between participants by talking through the pros and cons of technology as a tool for legal empowerment. As a group, we brainstormed assumptions that techno-optimists often make about technology’s impact, as well as discussed controversial positions about how legal services ought to be provided in the Puerto Rican context. Using a line of tape on the floor as a barometer for those in favor or against a belief, we held a lively debate based on the topics that we brainstormed.

After our debate, participants learned how programs on the island and across the United States leverage unique models of legal empowerment. We moved around the room as leaders from Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Alaska Legal Services Corporation, Pro Bono Net’s Immigration Advocates Network, and LawHelpNY presented examples of their work.

Imagining a better foreclosure process

We returned the next day for a day-long co-design workshop. Adapting from Pro Bono Net’s co-design methodology, Ayuda Legal’s David Rodriguez and IAN’s Rodrigo Camarena led participants through a series of design exercises. Our challenge was to explore legal empowerment and technological solutions to Puerto Rico’s severe foreclosure crisis.

After Hurricanes Maria and Irma and years of economic distress, more than 250,000 Puerto Rican homes are at risk of foreclosure. Thousands of Puerto Ricans still live in temporary housing and the government’s response has been considered insufficient. Most homeowners do not know their rights and lack legal representation, with the elderly, disabled, and domestic violence survivors especially at risk. Misconceptions about the process and a sense of shame also prevent homeowners from accessing justice.

With help from the Ayuda Legal Housing Justice team, Derecho a Tu Casa, we reviewed a timeline of the problem as a group to identify key moments of intervention. Then, we split into teams to brainstorm and sketch possible solutions. We closed out the workshop with two storyboards that each team shared out to the whole room.

Until next time!

Despite feeling sad to leave the next day, the Pro Bono Net team left Puerto Rico inspired by the friends we made and energized by what we learned. It was an honor to collaborate with Ayuda Legal on Puerto Rico’s inaugural Access to Justice and Technology Summit, and we look forward to supporting next steps in their work.


Interested in learning more about Ayuda Legal’s work? Check out their website here. You can also follow them on Twitter.

Created in 2011, each year the Fastcase 50 award honors a diverse group of lawyers, legal technologists, policymakers, judges, law librarians, bar association executives, and people from all walks of life. Fastcase honors “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries, and leaders.” 

Pro Bono Net’s Program Director, Liz Keith, has made this year’s Fastcase 50! Liz has played a key role in Pro Bono Net’s program strategy for more than a decade. She joined Pro Bono Net as a LawHelp Circuit Rider, working with legal aid programs in 25 states to build online resources to increase access to legal help for low income communities. As Program Director, Liz now manages strategic initiatives and programs at Pro Bono Net that equip individuals and communities with new tools to tackle civil justice problems. Previously, Liz managed outreach and education efforts at the Maine Women’s Policy Center on legislation impacting women’s health, civil rights, economic security and freedom from violence, and worked to increase the number of women running for office. She holds a master’s degree in community informatics from the University of Michigan, and has served as a consultant to digital inclusion initiatives in Haiti and Chile. In 2015, she was selected to participate in the inaugural Legal Empowerment Leadership program at Central European University’s School of Public Policy.

Pro Bono Net former Board member and CEO and General Counsel of Alameda County Bar Association, Tiela Chalmers, has also made this year’s Fastcase 50! She has been a leader in the fields of legal services and pro bono for almost 20 years. Tiela began her career doing business litigation (and pro bono) at the firm of Farella, Braun + Martel in San Francisco. She then moved to the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco (VLSP), where she went from housing work to becoming the Executive Director, and had the privilege of working closely with Tanya Neiman before her untimely death. She worked for three years as a consultant for legal aid programs, law firms, other non-profits, and national organizations focusing on legal services for low-income communities. One of her larger projects involved building and coordinating the Shriver Housing Project in Los Angeles, the largest of the “civil Gideon” pilot projects in California. She also brings the Poverty Simulation (a 3-hour experiential training for pro bono attorneys and others, giving the participants a visceral understanding of our clients) to law firms, legal aid offices, law schools, and other venues. In 2014, she was named as the Chief Executive Officer of the ACBA and VLSC, where she is working on several projects, including building a Legal Incubator to address the needs of modest means clients, and creating a joint pilot mediation project in unlawful detainer cases with the Alameda County Superior Court. Tiela has served as the chair of the State Bar of California Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, and currently is the Chair of the statewide Pro Bono Coordinating Committee. She is a frequent speaker at local, statewide and national conferences, and has published on legal aid issues.

Pro Bono Net Board Member, Vice Chair and CEO of Fastcase, Ed Walters, Esq. said, “Every part of the legal market is changing right now – from law school through every part of the practice. That change can be daunting or discouraging to many people. And that’s one reason that our team enjoys celebrating the accomplishments of the Fastcase 50. These are people who inspire us by their intelligence, creativity, and leadership. We hope they will inspire others as well, especially during a time of great change for the profession.”

Congratulations to Liz, Tiela and all of the other 2020 Fastcase 50 honorees. Check out the full list at: https://www.fastcase.com/fastcase50/

Pro Bono Net is pleased to announce the appointment of Veronica Dunlap, Esq. as New York Program Director.  In this role, Veronica spearheads LawHelpNY and related technology initiatives and collaborations that empower New Yorkers in need to resolve their legal problems and strengthen the work of advocates serving them.

I am thrilled to welcome Veronica to the Pro Bono Net team,” says Pro Bono Net’s Executive Director, Mark O’Brien. “Veronica’s expertise in civil law, nonprofit governance, network building and fundraising make her an ideal choice to lead our work and build partnerships to support our digital strategies in New York. She  will be a great asset to the organization.”

In addition to her role at Pro Bono Net, Veronica is a volunteer attorney with New York County Lawyers’ Association in a project aimed at restoring the civil rights of people with criminal convictions. Veronica has over a decade of experience in the government and nonprofit sectors, holding roles as in-house counsel and in senior management. Her expertise lies in the areas of civil law, strategic partnership development, and network building. Veronica’s broad knowledge in each of these areas has led to partnerships across industries, including a project with Microsoft Corporation to reduce racial bias in policing.

Prior to pursuing a career in law, Veronica performed on stages around the world as a classically trained dancer. She is a proud graduate of both George Washington University, where she received a B.A. in International Affairs, cum laude, and Fordham University School of Law where she received her Juris Doctor & M.B.A. in Finance. Veronica received the 2016 Heroine of Excellence Award for her work in social justice advocacy, and is a 2017 Council of Urban Professionals Fellow. Further, Veronica received the 2019 New York County Lawyers’ Association Pro Bono Honors Award for her dedication to public service and the 2020 Outstanding Woman Lawyer in Public Service Award from the National Bar Association.

Veronica joined Pro Bono Net as the New York Program Director this July, and has already made a strong impression as a valued colleague who brings new skills and perspective to the organization.

Pro Bono Net is on the frontlines of the access to justice space and I am so excited to take on a leadership role in programs that positively impact New York’s most vulnerable populations,” says Veronica.  


About our New York Programs: 

From New York City to rural upstate communities, Pro Bono Net’s programs have played a transformative role in how legal help reaches the underserved across the state. Find out more about our programs serving New Yorkers

Josh joined Pro Bono Net as Legal Content and Network Support Assistant during May and June 2020, with a focus on supporting Pro Bono Net’s COVID-19 response efforts. Josh graduated from Brown in December 2019, where he majored in history. He has experience in policy research and advocacy at the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, NYCshootings.com (a now inactive website he founded to track NYPD crime data), and at the New York City Council. Josh has written a three-part blog series on the digital divide. Here is part 3: 

The Digital Divide touches all aspects of Pro Bono Net’s work. Millions of Americans can’t access remote only services, or don’t have access to resources in their language. The gap is especially wide for low-income, Black and Latino, and rural communities. Still, with courts and brick and mortar legal support limited and closed over the past five months, PBN’s 20-state LawHelp network of statewide legal information websites have seen increased use over the last five months, with 20 percent more users than over the same period last year, and LawHelpNY’s LiveHelp use has increased significantly during the pandemic.  

To reach underserved Americans, especially communities that disproportionately lack internet access, PBN programs work to advance digital equity. PBN advocates for a “no wrong door” approach to how people can access or seek legal service, with online options increasing and complementing, not replacing, phone, in-person and other “traditional” access methods. Our work uses remote access legal support strategies to supplement and extend brick and mortar legal services. We work with legal aid and community partners to reach underserved communities, provide language access and plain language resources, and to build trust, representation, and to protect our users’ data and communicate that in plain-language privacy terms. 

PBN works with legal aid and community partners to co-design tools and service models. We teams up with trusted community partner networks that serve as the “on-ramp” to the digital service. One great example of this on-ramping is our work providing legal help to Domestic Violence survivors. Domestic Violence advocates in New York and Washington D.C. use LawHelp Interactive to help survivors access, complete and remotely file forms to win orders of protection and other vital court measures. Another key PBN program is the Risk Detector program, which takes aim at financial exploitation of seniors, including in housing and health care. PBN designed the program for use by social workers and professionals in aging to do legal health “check-ups” and referrals for the homebound, disabled and isolated elderly. 

Our programs provide key language access and plain language answers and support. Our core programs, including LawHelp, LawHelp Interactive and CitizenshipWorks, offer services in multiple languages. One site in our LawHelp network  saw the impact of having informative Spanish language legal resources, when, during a large traffic spike (from April 14th to April 17th), a Spanish-language resource on immigrants’ eligibility for government support counted for over 30 percent of its views, and Spanish-language resources counted for almost half of it’s views.

Beyond language access alone, many aren’t familiar or comfortable with tools that are needed to engage in and navigate legal and court processes online in the Covid-19 era, including photos and scanning apps, e-signature tools, video conferencing and remote hearings. We’re actively working to make things as simple as possible, with features like plain-language instructions and adding easy online e-signing capability. 

Providing legal resources to underserved immigrant communities is core to Pro Bono Net’s origin story and to its work today. A digital equity approach to this work has allowed our programs to extend their reach with immigrant communities. Two key PBN programs, CitizenshipWorks and Immi, provide immigrants with legal answers, access to legal help, and self-advocacy tools. These resources work to fill a large void—there is no right to counsel in immigration court, even for those facing deportation, and most who face deportation cannot afford a lawyer. Both efforts to provide self-advocacy resources, and expand free legal services available to immigrant communities, are vital to giving immigrants a fair shot. 

To make these programs successful, Pro Bono Net works with trusted partners, emphasizes visual representation in interfaces such as on Immi, and makes sure our users know their data is safe. Through programs like Citizenshipworks, PBN has partnered with organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles and the Brooklyn Public Library to help applicants across the country fill out and file immigrant applications. Community and advocacy partners help PBN extend remote legal services beyond those with broadband internet access. 

With our country at a moment of extreme legal need, remote legal support is as important as ever. PBN will keep working with our partners to help people effectively complete and file vital court forms, get answers to their legal questions and access legal services, and effectively self-advocate in court. 

 This is the third part of Pro Bono Net’s three-part blog series on the Digital Divide. If you missed part one or part two, click here

Josh joined Pro Bono Net as Legal Content and Network Support Assistant during May and June 2020, with a focus on supporting Pro Bono Net’s COVID-19 response efforts. Josh graduated from Brown in December 2019, where he majored in history. He has experience in policy research and advocacy at the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, NYCshootings.com (a now inactive website he founded to track NYPD crime data), and at the New York City Council. Josh has written a three-part blog series on the digital divide. Here is part two: 

The digital divide that has long hurt rural and tribal communities, Black and Latino households, and low-income households has garnered significant legislative attention during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During COVID-19, internet providers agreed to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” not to cut off customers’ service. This pledge lapsed on  June 30th. Now, millions of Americans are experiencing a gap in federal support with the expiration of CARES act benefits. With little to stop internet companies from cutting off service to those who miss bills, many have reason to fear that they will lose their internet service. 

But, the digital divide extends beyond the scope of this present crisis, and warrants legislative attention beyond short-term relief during the COVID-19 crisis. As NPR reports, internet companies often have little incentive to invest in high speed broadband in rural communities. Some municipalities have built their own broadband networks, but over a dozen states have passed Telecom supported legislation that keeps towns and cities from building broadband networks. New America, a public policy think tank, has its own plan to help communities build their own broadband networks: Community Broadband: The Fast, Affordable Internet Option That’s Flying Under the Radar. The plan advocates for communities to create their own broadband networks and urges policymakers to pass legislation including the Community Broadband Act, which would prevent states from creating laws that ban towns and cities from creating their own broadband networks.

Current Policy

The CARES Act provides significant support for telehealth programs. It provides $200 million for the FCC’s telehealth program, $180 million to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) telehealth and rural health work, and significant funding to the Department of Health and Human Services ($27 billion), some of which went to telehealth. In April the FCC created the Connected Care Pilot Program that will spend $100 million over three years to provide connected healthcare to low-income Americans and veterans. 

The package also appropriated appropriated $50 million to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for its work increasing access to the internet, and $13.5 billion in formula grants to states for elementary and secondary schools, some of which went to enable remote learning, and provided $453 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and $69 million to the Bureau of Indian Education, some of which went to closing the digital gap that particularly hurts tribal communities. The stimulus package doesn’t add to Lifeline, the only federal program that subsidizes low-income families’ internet and cellphone bills, or E-Rate, which funds schools and libraries’ digital access efforts. 

Under the Trump administration, the Federal Communications Commission has invested in building more rural infrastructure, but the gulf remains wide, and the administration has cut subsidies that help low-income Americans get online. 

In January the agency launched a $20.4 billion implementation to build broadband in rural communities. The Trump Administration has also cut Lifeline, which supports families who make less than 135% of the poverty line with a $9.25 monthly subsidy towards their cell or internet bill (and an additional $25 discount for those who qualify and live on tribal land). Lifeline is the only federal program specifically designed to connect low-income people. As Larry Irving emphasized in an Aspen Institute webinar, there are more people living in cities who cannot afford broadband than rural Americans who don’t have the infrastructure for high quality broadband (though the latter problem remains a fundamental barrier to rural prosperity and digital equity). 

According to Gigi Sohn of Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, only one in five people who are eligible for Lifeline are enrolled in the program. Under the Trump administration, applications have gone down by 40% as a result of Chairman Ajit Pai’s actions to make it harder for applicants and providers to participate in the program, and the program’s budget has gone down by half. However, in a step to make it easier to apply for Lifeline during the pandemic, the FCC temporarily loosened income documentation requirements kept Lifeline subscribers from being involuntarily removed from the program.

Legislative Proposals

With Congress in recess until September without passing a new round of fiscal relief, it’s unclear when we’ll see a next round of stimulus, let alone legislation that invests in closing the digital divide. Still, expanding access to the internet has garnered significant focus from members of Congress and looks to be a key priority for many going forward. 

On July 1, the House passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package, which would invest significantly in closing the digital divide. The bill would appropriate about $100 billion in broadband infrastructure and other programs to close the digital divide, including $80 billion in broadband infrastructure through competitive bidding systems, $5 billion for a new program, the Broadband Infrastructure Financing Innovation (BIFIA), “to help finance local governments and public-private partnerships’ broadband construction,” and $5 billion for E-Rate grants that provide support for schools and libraries setting up internet access. The package would also entitle “households with a member who qualifies for Lifeline, free/reduced school lunch, or are recently unemployed to receive a $50 benefit, or a $75 benefit on tribal lands, to put toward the monthly price of internet service.” And, it would require the FCC to automatically coordinate with the USDA to make sure that those on SNAP who qualify for Lifeline are enrolled. 

In May, the House passed the “Heroes Act,” which would provide $4 billion to help families afford service through the end of the pandemic and add $1.5 billion to the E-Rate program. 

And Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign recently released a proposal to close the digital divide that included support for increased spending on broadband construction and digital equity. It would add $20 billion for rural broadband and reform Lifeline by increasing the number of participating broadband providers and “reducing fraud and abuse.” Vice President Biden also announced support for the The Digital Equity Act, which would provide $1.25 billion over five years to create two digital equity federal grant programs that focus on underserved populations: one administered competitively on the federal level and one that provides grants to states. 

This is the second part of Pro Bono Net’s three-part blog series on the Digital Divide. To read part three, click here

Josh joined Pro Bono Net as Legal Content and Network Support Assistant during May and June 2020, with a focus on supporting Pro Bono Net’s COVID-19 response efforts. Josh graduated from Brown in December 2019, where he majored in history. He has experience in policy research and advocacy at the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, NYCshootings.com (a now inactive website he founded to track NYPD crime data), and at the New York City Council. Josh has written a three-part blog series on the digital divide. Here is part one: 

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes for a digital divide that has long disadvantaged low-income, Black and Latino, and rural households.* As Americans lose access to public internet sources at schools, libraries and businesses, those who most need the internet to access school and get the unemployment and SNAP resources they need to meet basic needs are getting hit hardest. 

With the expiration of CARES Act benefits, historic rates of joblessness, eviction moratoriums ending, continued spikes in COVID-19 cases, months of learning lost for students (especially low-income students), and the expiration of a voluntary FCC program that kept internet companies from cutting service to those who missed bills during the pandemic, the worst may be yet to come. 

In cities and towns across the country, millions are relying on parking-lot WiFi, according to FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. South Bend, Indiana, has sent WiFi-equipped buses around the city to sites that students can access. Similarly, San Antonio is setting up WiFi stations with over 100 feet range. And, a Nyack, New York, Library Director who set up parking lot WiFi service told Consumer Reports, “This library had been a place where kids without computers or access to broadband could do homework, but we now also have members of the public trying to do other things, such as file for unemployment or fill out census forms.”

The digital divide has long hurt Black, Hispanic, limited education and low-income, and tribal and rural households. While 79 percent of white households have broadband internet, only 66 percent of Black households and 61 percent of Hispanic households do. Native Americans, especially those who live on reservations, are sharply affected by the digital divide. Only two in three Native Americans have home broadband, according to a 2018 report from the Census Bureau. And only 52 percent of Native Americans who live on tribal land have a home broadband subscription. 

This disparity also falls along income. Over 9 in 10 households that make over $75,000 a year have home broadband, compared with only 56 percent of households that make under $30,000 a year.

Many Americans rely on smartphones as their only way of getting online. Black and Hispanic adults use smartphones at similar rates to white adults (about 8 in 10 adults), but 23 percent of Black adults and 25 percent of Hispanic adults are smartphone-only users, which means that they access the internet through their smartphone but do not have home broadband, compared to only 12 percent of whites. And one in five rural adults are smartphone-only internet users, compared to 17 percent of urban and 13 percent of suburban adults. About half of smartphone-only internet users report running out of data and they are far more likely to cancel or suspend their service due to financial constraint than people with at-home internet. 

According to a Pew survey from early April, at the beginning of stay at home orders and remote learning, about one in five households with children at home reported that it was at least somewhat likely that their children would not be able to do their schoolwork because they do not have access to a computer at home (21 percent) or because they rely on public WiFi for lack of stable internet at home (22 percent). 

This group of students who now lack internet access is disproportionately low income and Black. In 2018, 21 percent of Black teens reported using “public Wi-Fi to do schoolwork due to a lack of home internet connection,” compared with 11 percent of whites. And of teens whose families make less than $30,000 a year, 21 percent rely on public wi-fi to do homework compared to just 7 percent of those in households that make at least $75,000 a year, according to Pew. In California, the State Board of Education found that about 20 percent of students could not access the internet at home. 

As a result, many families reported worrying that their children would not be able to do their school work for lack of internet access during school closures and stay-at-home orders. Twenty-nine percent of parents report that it’s “at least somewhat likely their children will have to do their schoolwork on a cellphone.” And, many are worried about paying their internet bills: three in ten smartphone users are worried about paying for their smartphone service and 28 percent of at-home-broadband users are also worried about making payments. Hispanic adults are particularly concerned about paying their internet bills during the COVID-19 pandemic–54 percent of Hispanic broadband users reported being worried about paying their bill, compared with 36 percent of Black broadband subscribers and 21 percent of whites. 

The shift to remote education has had devastating impacts on many low-income and Black and Latino students. One study found that only 60 percent of low-income students regularly logged onto online classes, compared with 90 percent of high income students. Another study found that just 60 to 70 percent of Latino students logged on regularly to their online classes this spring. 

As remote learning and continued economic distress continue into the fall, the digital divide represents a national crisis that denies millions access to education, the benefits they need, job opportunities, and online legal help.

___________________

*Though lack of broadband is only one facet of the digital divide, it is a big part of the problem. According to the FCC’s 2018 numbers, 18 million Americans lived in an area without broadband, but BroadbandNow estimates that number at close to 42 million Americans. 


Helpful resources:

This is part of a three-part blog series on the digital divide. To read part two, click here

Pro Bono Net will be represented at the 2020 Equal Justice Conference (EJC) Webinar Series this week. This virtual conference takes place August 11th-13th and is hosted by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association

Pro Bono Net is a national nonprofit leader in increasing access to justice through innovative uses of technology and collaboration. Our staff is made up of a cross-disciplinary team from legal, technology and community engagement backgrounds who are committed to creating innovative, sustainable solutions for expanding access to justice. The Equal Justice Conference brings together all sectors of the legal community to discuss equal justice issues as they relate to the delivery of legal services to low income and vulnerable communities. 

Our Program Director, Liz Keith, is presenting on two panels at this year’s Equal Justice Conference. We are also looking forward to seeing Pro Bono Net’s Board member Betty Balli Torres, Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation on Thursday. See below for more information on which panels Liz Keith and Betty Balli Torres are in. For more details on each workshop, and information about other workshops of interest to access to justice technology initiatives, please visit the EJC website here

Tuesday 3:00-400 PM

Session I – Reaching the Other 80%: Technology Strategies to Build Legal Capacity in Local Communities

This workshop will explore efforts to use technology to engage and educate communities who are generally disconnected from traditional justice systems, and to strengthen the work of community-based lawyers and advocates serving them. Presenters will discuss how technology and legal empowerment strategies can help to bridge the gulf between individuals with justice problems and traditional justice institutions such as legal aid programs and the courts, and support communities in understanding and defending their rights. 

  • Moderator: Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net
  • Matthew Burnett, Open Society Foundations
  • Ariadna Godreau Aubert, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico
  • Tanina Rostain,  Georgetown Law

Thursday 12:05-12:50 PM

50 Tech Tips 2020

This session will provide tips about free and low-cost technology tools, including mobile apps, web platforms, and solutions for Windows and macOS. Technology leaders will share new tips relevant to the access to justice community at what is always one of the most popular sessions at EJC. 

  • David Bronebrake, Legal Services Corporation
  • Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net
  • LaDierdre McKinney, Michigan Legal Help
  • Glenn Rawdon, Legal Services Corporation
  • Jane Ribadeneyra, Legal Services Corporation 

Thursday 1:45-2:30 PM

Enlisting Philanthropy in Support of Civil Legal Aid

This session aims to help practitioners better make their case for philanthropic support. The principal presenters have extensive experience in philanthropy and civil legal aid and are engaged in a year-long examination of (1) how to better inform foundations and other donors about how civil legal aid can help them achieve their social justice goals, and (2) how civil legal aid programs can better demonstrate the impact of their work and make stronger cases to foundations and other donors. The workshop will present the study’s findings and engage participants in interactive exercises aimed at equipping participants with better tools and strategies for engaging social investors.

  • Stephen P. Johnson, Johnson Philanthropic
  • Lonnie Powers, Lonnie Powers Consulting 
  • Betty Balli Torres, Texas Access to Justice Foundation & Pro Bono Net Board of Directors