Better digital tools could help immigrants access benefits

A multitude of digital resources provides information to asylum seekers and other immigrants, but content is often outdated, and potential users worry they may be vulnerable to online tracking.

“If I am undocumented, I’m not going to go to a website and click on a search option that says, ‘I’m undocumented,’” a legal professional told Cornell researchers. “I’d be terrified of who’s taking that information. Where’s it going?”

Fear of tracking and the use of digital tools in the context of public benefits in the U.S. are among the major barriers to immigrants accessing online resources and benefits more generally, found the multidisciplinary research team of experts in communication, health and law.

To mitigate those concerns, websites, apps, social media and other digital tools disseminating information to immigrants should collect the minimum personal data necessary and clearly state privacy policies, the scholars recommend in a new study focused on U.S. asylum seekers’ informational needs and how best to design digital tools supporting them.

Putting recommendations into practice, the team has also developed Rights for Health, a website dedicated to sharing accurate and accessible information on health and legal benefits available to immigrants in the U.S. – the world’s largest immigration system with nearly 45 million foreign-born residents, about 14% of the population.

“It can be a very complex system to navigate, even for professionals,” said Aparajita Bhandari, a member of the Cornell Social Media Lab and doctoral student in the field of communication whose research explores digital technologies for vulnerable communities.

Bhandari is the lead author with Natalie Bazarova​, M.S. ’05, Ph.D. ’09, professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of the Social Media Lab, of “Multi-stakeholder Perspectives on Digital Tools for U.S. Asylum Applicants Seeking Healthcare and Legal Information,” published Nov. 11 in Proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) on Human-Computer Interaction and presented at the ACM’s recent conference on computer-supported cooperative work and social computing.

Co-authors include Dr. Gunisha Kaur ’06, M.D. ’10, associate professor of anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine and co-medical director of the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights, and Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School. As faculty fellows at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, they lead a team researching refugee and immigrant health as part of Global Cornell’s Migrations: A Global Grand Challenge initiative, with collaborators including Bazarova and the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR).

The researchers interviewed 24 asylum applicants in the U.S. representing 18 countries, and 13 health care and legal professionals who work with asylum applicants and other immigrants.

Insights from that range of stakeholders, they said, informed a more complete and nuanced understanding of asylum seekers’ information needs and barriers to using currently available digital tools. The team reported the following additional challenges and design recommendations:

  • Informational uncertainty: A constantly changing legal landscape and variation in federal, state and local policies can result in inaccurate information, with potentially serious consequences for immigrants unsure of which sources to trust. Recommendation: Be transparent about information sources and when they were last updated. Despite concerns about online surveillance, the researchers said U.S. asylum seekers generally perceived websites ending in .gov and .edu as more trustworthy.
  • Accessibility: Access to information could be limited by costly internet access, language barriers and a lack of digital literacy – though the researchers found asylum seekers used digital sources routinely for daily activities. Recommendation: Use simple, clear and consistent language and icons to help overcome language barriers, possibly including images instead of blocks of text, like visual resources provided on the Rights for Health website.
  • Contextual sensitivity: Professionals emphasized that immigrants’ experiences and eligibility for benefits depend heavily on their location and social context. Recommendation: Scope tools appropriately to address immigration issues nationally or engage deeply with a few issues. Work with established community groups to navigate contextual differences and gain immigrant communities’ trust.

“There’s so much information out there, but it’s often presented in complicated legal language that even a native English speaker would have a difficult time parsing,” Bazarova said. “We’ve tried to provide a road map and framework for how to design better digital tools for immigrants and other vulnerable populations.”

In addition to Bhandari, Bazarova, Kaur and Yale-Loehr, co-authors of the research included Diana Freed, doctoral student in the field of information science at Cornell Tech; Faten Taki, instructor of pharmacology research in anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine; Tara Pilato, medical student and member of the Human Rights Impact Lab at Weill Cornell Medicine; Jane Powers, Ph.D. ’85, senior extension associate at BCTR; and Tao Long ’22. Winice Hui ’21, applications programmer at the Social Media Lab, supported the website’s development.

Research funding came from the Migrations initiative supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Cornell’s Office of Academic Integration; and the Cornell Immigration Law and Policy Program, which is partly funded by the Charles Koch Foundation.

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