When Xiao Wang’s parents came to Phoenix from China nearly three decades ago, they hired an immigration lawyer to help them obtain their green cards and, later, their citizenship. The cost: The equivalent of five months of rent. Wang’s parents believed the steep investment was worth the price: As graduate students at Arizona State University, they didn’t want to risk making an error that would get them and their 3-year-old son sent back to China.
It’s the most high stakes and life-changing event, and the lack of information about what to expect and how it will work is shocking.
“As I got older,” says Wang, “I kept thinking, ‘There has to be a better way.’” Wang, who earned degrees in economics and business from Stanford and Harvard universities, went on to work at the New York City Department of Education, Amazon, and the consulting firm McKinsey. While at McKinsey, he was often approached by highly educated foreign employees who were having difficulty understanding the application process for permanent residency. “They were asking ‘How do I answer these questions correctly?’ It’s the most high stakes and life-changing event, and the lack of information about what to expect and how it will work is shocking,” says Wang, who now lives in Seattle.
So Wang decided to help. In 2015, he left consulting and started Boundless, a digital platform that allows immigrants to easily navigate the green card application. For a flat fee, the company helps immigrants understand the complicated process of applying for residency and citizenship, by deciphering the forms and offering advice on obtaining visas for spouses. Investors believe the company fills a need: Boundless recently raised $3.5 million in funding.
Historically, volunteers at small nonprofits have been able to help people who can’t afford to hire a private immigration lawyer. But what about others, perhaps those with a modest salary? Wang saw an opportunity to provide an affordable model for everyone, regardless of income. “This is something where we can really use technology and data to be that guide people are looking for,” he says. “We can put them at ease. I thought ‘How can we not help people?’ ”
Although Boundless may streamline the process, it’s hardly a cure-all. Wang says immigration reform is long overdue, especially in two areas: Transparency and speed. “If immigration officials could share more information about what’s going on after you mail in your application, it could really help people understand the process,” he says, adding that the government is still processing some family-based green card applications first filed decades ago.
Faster processing would also allow immigrants to receive the work authorization they need to better contribute to the economy. Immigrants play a particularly vital role in the workforce in Washington state, which has the tenth largest immigrant population in the United States, with more than 35,000 arrivals between 2010 and 2014. As a group, the foreign-born play an outsize role in contributing tax revenue; 71.6 percent of the foreign-born population in Washington is of working age, compared with 51 percent of the state’s U.S.-born. These immigrants are also bolstering housing wealth, by buying the wave of homes coming on the market as the baby boomers retire. “When people have less uncertainty and can put down roots, they’re more apt to buy houses and cars and start families,” says Wang. “Making this process easier will have long-lasting benefits.”