Published 6 August 2020

It’s Time for Tech for Good to Serve the Undocumented Community

At Exygy, I get to do work that I consider myself incredibly privileged to do. It’s the kind of work that as an undocumented teenager living in the pre-DACA era, I never thought I’d get the opportunity to do. Day in and day out, my team and I get to use our skills to support vulnerable communities: from people looking for affordable housing to families looking for affordable, quality childcare. As product managers, designers, and engineers in the tech-for-good space, our goal is to make sure that the end user is at the front and center of every product decision that we make.

For several years, I was the only DACA recipient at Exygy – until 2020, when Ivy joined. Together, we have thought deeply about the intersectionality of the work that Exygy does and how it can be used to protect and support our community: Undocumented people living in America. Letters from Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, and other tech giants isn’t enough. It’s been almost 20 years since the Dream Act was first introduced. DACA has been rescinded, argued in SCOTUS, and rejected again by this administration. We’re tired of being a political football. As members of the tech-for-good community, it’s time we use our skills and our voices to serve our community. 

This is a call for product managers, designers and engineers in the tech-for-good space to join us.


Left: Ivy Teng Lei, our Growth Marketing Lead (middle) on the steps of the US Supreme Court on the day of DACA SCOTUS hearing, 2019. Right: Aashna Shah sharing her story as a DACA recipient at TedxCUNY, 2016

How do we ensure that technology is used to protect the undocumented community, and not police them? 

I don’t have all the answers, and neither does America, apparently. Nevertheless, I am eager to see the technology and design communities start to play a role in protecting and advocating for undocumented people. Providing security and building trust needs to be at the core of our human-centered design process. Here are some ideas to consider as we build products that serve and impact the undocumented community: 

1. Think Deeply: What information is absolutely necessary to collect, and why? 

Creating a lengthy, complex information collection process is our design team’s worst nightmare. It increases the chances that users will quit before reaching the finish line. It leads to a high bounce rate and low engagement rate – all indicators of doom for any digital product. In every project involving information collection, our team adamantly asks: What information is absolutely necessary to collect, and why? 

This practice becomes even more important when there are more dire consequences than just poor product metrics. People’s safety is at risk. It is crucial for product managers and designers to fully understand the devastating implication of data leakage or misuse if it lands in the wrong hands. In our country today, we’re seeing children locked up in cages at the border, undocumented immigrants being afraid to get medical service because they fear deportation — I could go on. We are living under a federal administration that is openly violating human rights at the border and there is a constant risk that any data or information collected can be used to target the undocumented community. There is no need to collect home addresses, social media accounts. Also keep in mind that many undocumented people also don’t have access to basic forms of identification such as social security numbers or even state IDs. When designing products or services for this community, collect only the most critical information that you need to provide the service. 

One example where we’ve seen a program designed thoughtfully is the California Disaster Relief for Assistance for Immigrants Project. Not only is California the first state to provide disaster relief assistance to undocumented people during Covid-19, they also created a process that does not require any in-person touch points, or online applications. Instead, the process is entirely based on phone lines and processed electronically. This has been an effective approach in making undocumented people feel safe enough to access services: on the first day, nonprofits screening applicants in eight counties said they received 1.3 million calls

A few other states such as Oregon, Washington, and Massachusetts are in the process of implementing similar programs. There are also a couple of city-funded and privately funded initiatives providing support for immigrants in New York City, Austin, and Tulsa. I hope that they all follow suit in their approach. Risk mitigation, in this instance, is directly correlated to the success of any program implemented for the undocumented community. 

2. Consider: How might you build trust and empathy into your products and processes?

Any time the undocumented community is accessing aid, particularly anything involving the local, state or federal government, it is a time of high anxiety and stress. Along with day to day fears that many vulnerable populations face – making rent, paying car insurance bills, getting food on the table for their children – there is also an added layer of fear: Is this process safe? Will this impact my immigration status? Am I exposing my family to risk? 

While the California Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants Project has been a landmark initiative and successful in many ways, it has also exposed opportunities for improvement. The user experience for this process has been fraught with uncertainty, tension and frustration. From the time this project was announced, it was clear that it only had capacity to benefit 150,000 of the over 2 million undocumented immigrants living in California, and immigrants would be served on a first come, first serve basis. This resulted in a mass rush- Phone lines crashed 1 hour after they opened. There were 100 people available to answer calls, but they were receiving 200,000 calls per day. Potential applicants spent hours and hours on the phone dialing – only to be met with a busy signal. Some people finally got through to an agent, only to have the call dropped. During this entire process, users had no idea if funds were still available or if they would even get the opportunity to apply. 

Build tool tips, guides, FAQ into your products and services to proactively assuage users’ fears and answer their questions. It will go a long way in supporting this community and easing their already stressful days. 

3. User research is already hard. It’s going to be even harder if the end-users are undocumented. Invest in it anyway. 

With the undocumented population, user research may be near impossible. And for a good reason: it is their safety and their livelihoods at stake. There is an inherent, well-founded fear of identifying themselves as undocumented. Flawed policies and legislations have, and can, put them, their friends, and families at risk of deportation. This fear has only increased in the last few years.

Nevertheless, there is a small, but powerful and vocal group. For user research, reach out the well-respected community based organizations fighting for immigrants rights such as Immigrants Rising, Fwd.us, and United We Dream. These organizations have vast networks of undocumented folks, Dreamers and allies. They would be well equipped to put you in touch with end-users who are willing to speak to you and provide feedback. California has put 12 nonprofits that serve immigrants in charge of assessing applications for the Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants Project and distributing the funds. This approach not only puts power in the hands of people that best understand how to serve this community, but also protects users. 

It will be difficult, but that is not a reason to skip critical steps such as User Research and User Testing. It is the reason to try harder. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented people in the United States. Like any large group of people, there is a wide variety of backgrounds, and needs. There is no singular, “right” way to serve this group. For this and all the reasons discussed above, this community deserves to have their voices heard.

We would love to hear from you: Are there other teams in the tech and human centered design communities grappling with these questions? Are there any promising ideas that you have come across? Any solutions that have already been implemented? 

If you are part of the undocumented community, please know that we will take your confidentiality and privacy with utmost seriousness. You can reach out to us directly at aashna.shah@exygy.com and ivy.tenglei@exygy.com

In solidarity, 

Aashna Shah, DACA Recipient & Product Manager 

Ivy Teng Lei, formerly undocumented & Growth Marketing Lead


Aashna Shah
Aashna Shah
Product Manager

While Aashna is passionate about all things social impact, feminism, and behavioral health care, immigrants rights get her particularly fired up.

Ivy Teng Lei
Ivy Teng Lei
Growth Marketing Lead

Ivy is a proud product of the NYC public school system, a DREAMer, and an immigrant and education advocate.