Insider Insight: Tech tools help legal-services providers learn from each other (10-5-10)

10/05/2010

Insider Insight
Tech tools help legal-services providers learn from each other

Original Article on Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Website

Legal-services workers at the International Institute of the Bay Area’s Redwood City office recently found themselves covering new ground. Their client, a victim of a crime in the United States, had been granted a U visa, which gives immigrants temporary legal status during a criminal investigation. Trouble arose when the client was picked up by immigration authorities and sent home to Mexico before receiving the visa.

International Institute staff suddenly had a sea of paperwork and international bureaucracies to navigate. But they had a place to turn: the UCommunity wiki (www.ucommunity.org), a technology hub and content repository that gives legal practitioners the most up-to-date information about the U visa program.

“We used the UCommunity to find other practitioners who had already gone through this process and to find out how they did it,” Says Sheryl Muñoz-Bergman, San Mateo County program coordinator at the institute. “We got the proper contact info at the U.S. consulate and learned how to get our client back into the country.”

The UCommunity wiki, used by more than 20 seasoned legal-services workers in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, was funded by a grant from Silicon Valley Community Foundation and developed in partnership with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Immigration Advocates Network. On the wiki, legal services providers can find current U visa information, archives of meeting notes, podcasts about pertinent issues, and a forum where they can discuss their experiences. The wiki fits the community foundation’s goal of strengthening the local legal infrastructure, says grantmaking director Manuel Santamaria.

“So many folks are still using paper-and-pencil files,” Santamaria says, adding that paper-and-pencil files don’t talk to each other. “What we want to create here in our region is a network of legal-service providers that is robust, nimble and able to access the most up-to- date information. The only way we can do that is by using new technology.”

The U visa program was a natural fit for testing a wiki, says Sally Kinoshita, deputy director of ILRC and a content editor for UCommunity. It has grown tremendously with new regulatory oversight. In 2009, the government received about 6,000 applications. In 2010, it reached the 10,000-applicant cap by July 15.

U visas are designed to make it easier for victims of violent crimes, such as domestic abuse, to step forward and help law enforcement without fear of being prosecuted because of their legal status. It’s a positive sign that more victims are using the program, Kinoshita says, but it also means an influx of cases and questions for law enforcement agents and legal-services providers.

“What we have on the wiki — and one reason it requires a password to access — is which law enforcement agencies have been contacted, who the best contact person is, how they prefer to be contacted, what forms they need, and other tips on the best way to proceed,” Kinoshita says. That sort of insider insight can smooth the process for volunteers, victims and law enforcement agents alike.

Both Kinoshita and Santamaria view this technology based approach to U visas as an experiment to expand upon for broader immigration issues, particularly as the legal landscape continues to shift. For example, the community foundation recently awarded a $150,000 grant to ILRC to develop CitizenshipWorks, a web portal designed to provide both immigrants and the legal-services providers who serve them with resources, information and interactive tools.

“We wanted to use an existing collaborative to try technology tools as a way to improve our collaboration and our work,” Kinoshita says of UCommunity, “so that we can scale up to something big, like legalization, if that passes sometime in the future.” —Chris Blose