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Children of a Lesser God: Specter of Going ‘Out of Status’ Haunts Dependents on H-4 Visa Turning 21

Children of a Lesser God: Specter of Going ‘Out of Status’ Haunts Dependents on H-4 Visa Turning 21

  • The interminable wait for Green Cards plays havoc with the lives of Indian children of H-1B visa holders when they become adults.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion in the media about the struggles of H-1B visa holders and their spouses on H-4 visas, but hardly anything about their children who are on the same dependent visas. These children accompanied their parents to the United States when they were very young and have been raised here.

An H-1B visa holder can live indefinitely in this country, along with his or her dependent spouse on an H-4 visa, as long as the employer sponsors them. But their children on an H-4 visa, who have been raised in the U.S., who attend schools and universities and have barely known any other country, become out of status once they turn 21. In other words, once they become adults, they are deemed illegals.

H-1B, called the “outsourcing visa” by its critics, is a non-immigrant visa, but it serves as an entry point to permanent residency popularly known as green card, opening up the possibility for citizenship. The U.S. currently limits employment-based green cards to 140,000 per year. Each country of origin is limited to 7 percent of the employment-based visas allocated that year. Since 70% of the H-1B workers are from India, they are stuck waiting for their green cards for decades due to country limit quota. On an average about 150,000 Indians on H-1B visa come to the U.S. annually.

Immigration Voice, an advocacy group for highly skilled Indian workers, estimates that more than half a million people are stuck in the queue for an employment-based green card. Once a green card application is approved, it can take 50 years or longer to actually get a green card, noted the organization. As David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, says, more than 90,000 India-born children are waiting for their green card along with their parents. As the waiting for the green card grows longer for parents, more children turn 21. They “age out” of eligibility and automatically drop out of their parent’s application.

What are their struggles? What do they miss out in daily life? What are their fears for their future? I have interviewed a dozen such children in different age groups and their parents spread out in different parts of the country and here I will share some of their lived experiences as they have narrated.

The Only Home They Know

Sanaa Mahajan, second from left, with her family. She came to the the U.S. with her parents when she was just two years old. She does not remember a thing about India. Top photo, Sanaa with her friends.

These children on H-4 visas are growing up Americans and believe that the United States is their home. They are Americans in terms of their lifestyle, food habits, friend circle and values but in every step of their life, they are made to realize that they are lesser compared to their peers. In 2008, Sanaa Mahajan came to this country with her parents when she was just two years old. She does not remember a thing about India, the country of her birth.  She is a rising high school freshman who lives with her parents and younger sister in New Jersey. She wonders why she is not allowed to do a summer job to earn pocket money like her friends in the neighborhood. She was excited to apply for a summer internship program for junior high students on agriculture and climate change at Rutgers University, but found out that because of her visa status she was not eligible. She wonders what will happen to her when she turns 21 while her parents are waiting in the queue for their green card. 

It is hard to deal with the H-4 visa setbacks specially for a youth transitioning from high school to college. In 2008, Animesh Namjoshi came to the United States from Canada at age 11 along with his mother and little brother when his father, a control system engineer, joined an American engineering, procurement, and construction company. The family has settled in Katy, Texas. Animesh’s father came with a TN (nonimmigrant NAFTA professional) visa which permits professional Canadian and Mexican citizens to seek temporary entry into the United States to engage in business activities. In 2011, Animesh’s father Jayant was sponsored for a green card by his company.

“Until I went to college, I thought I was better off here … Now I have aged out, so even if my parents get their green card, it will take a while before they can sponsor me. So, in retrospect, I feel that we should have just stayed in Canada.”

Animesh grew up in this country and graduated from high school. In 2018, Animesh was turning 21 and feared he would lose his H4 dependent visa while his father was still waiting for his green card. So, he had to apply for an international student visa (F-1) for his college applications. It had several restrictions. He needed more documentation and was required to go for a tuberculosis test as a foreigner. He had limited choices to apply to universities as they required non-resident tuition from foreign students. Animesh chose University of Texas (UT) Austin since it recognizes in-state residency and he does not have to pay international tuition.

Animesh found out that F-1 visa holders cannot work outside the college campus, cannot participate in paid internships, take out student loans, apply for most scholarships available for residents of the state, and avail federal aid. On an F-1 visa, he could apply only for minimum wage campus jobs like front desk clerk, maintenance staff or dishwasher at UT Austin. The university forced him to buy health insurance costing him $900 a semester even though he has insurance through his father’s employer, creating an unnecessary financial burden for him and his family.

Regarding his life experience in the U.S., Animesh shares that “until I went to college, I thought I was better off here because obviously my dad and my mother got good jobs and were happy. Now I have aged out, so even if my parents get their green card, it will take a while before they can sponsor me. So, in retrospect, I feel that we should have just stayed in Canada.”

Animesh Namjoshi, second from right, is seen here with his parents and brother. The family moved to the U.S. from Canada when Animesh was 11 years old.

The H-4 visa affects people’s choices differently. Janvi Mehta was 14 and her sister Dhara was 11 when they came to the U.S. in mid 2007. Their father Dhiren Mehta has been on an H-1B visa for the last 13 years. Janvi is bright and excelled in high school. Her ambition was to go to medical school. When she turned 21 in 2014, she became out of status and realized that her dream was not going to become a reality. Medical schools are very expensive, and on an F-1 visa, she would not be eligible to apply for loans. Being totally stripped of any chance of scholarship, federal and state aid, she had to give up her dream and switched to pharmacy school. On her F-1 visa, she obtained a D.Pharma degree at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. She said that despite her stellar academic record, she could not avail a single internship required for her degree. No company would sponsor a foreign visa holder. 

Janvi’s immigration status was also a hindrance for her to get a job. Even with a prestigious D.Pharma degree, she was waiting for months for a job offer. She would have to self-deport if she could not get a company to sponsor her. She was already talking with friends and prospective companies to migrate to Canada. “Once I applied to a company without bringing up my immigration status. After I got through the interviews, I was offered a position. When I mentioned that I need an H-1B visa, they rescinded their offer. I have come across that so many times.”

I Would Never Recommend America

Janvi is fortunate that she was eventually hired by a company which sponsored her H1 B visa. “My D.Pharma degree has given me an edge and I was picked up in the lottery in 2017.” Currently she is working as a pharmacist. She is worried that her visa will expire at the end of December 2020. In the meantime, her family got the green card in 2017 and has sponsored her permanent residency but it will take at least 4 to 5 years to come through. The whole process of her education and work experience has been daunting for her. “If anyone ever asks me, hey, I want to move to the United States for education and build my life there, I would never recommend it. You are spending the best years of your life so stressed out about something that’s so miniscule, it is not worth it.” Now Janvi has lived in this country for 13 years and is a tax paying high skilled professional but still lives in constant fear of being deported. Ironically, as her father Dhiren Mehta laments, “had Janvi become undocumented; she would have got all the legal protection today.” He was referring to the protections the so-called Dreamers got under the Obama administration.

Janvi Mehta, left, seen here with her parents and sister Dhara, right, came to the U.S. in mid 2007, when she was 14 and her sister was 11.

Janvi’s sister Dhara’s situation is worth mentioning for comparing life experiences between H-4/ F-1 visa holders and a green card. Dhara was 11 years old when she came to this country in 2007. Since their father was waiting in the green card backlog, Dhara had to apply to college as an international student. She went to Rutgers University and then joined Rutgers Business School. Despite a double major and an impeccable academic record in a prestigious business school, she had no success in availing any internship even during her junior year. “All my friends got their dream internship. When I went for an interview, the first question I would be asked, would you need sponsorship? Then I would be rejected.” Dhara was, however, lucky – in her senior year, three weeks before she turned 21 her father got the green card. “After I got my green card, I applied and got an internship in a small firm. That was my ticket to a lucrative job after my graduation.” Dhara’s green card gained her financial and emotional independence whereas Janvi missed out because she turned 21 three years too soon.

Switching from an H-4 visa to F-1 brings in numerous complications in one’s life as it is reported by Sumana Kaluvai on Medium, an online publishing platform. She came to this country on an H-4 visa at the age 2 and now holds a degree in bioengineering from UCLA. Her parents raised her to believe that she was no different than any of her peers until she started applying to colleges — she had to check the “international student” box. She writes “not a day passed by during my senior year when I constantly worried if I wasn’t going to get into any colleges, because I was now considered ‘international’ even while living in the U.S. I felt absolutely alone. The only place I called home, didn’t seem to want me.” When Sumana turned 21, in order to maintain legal status, she went back to India to apply for F-1 and has written about her anxiety of waiting to get the visa. Sumana emphasized the pain, hurt and shame associated with H-4 visa and observed that “our story in the H-4 community should be focused on the pain of kids getting deported and having no opportunity to establish their roots”.

There are many instances where the fear of “aging out” of these children has forced their families to relocate to neighboring countries like Canada or go back to India deeply affecting these young adults. 

See Also

After saying goodbye to her friends and family in Edison, New Jersey, Disha and her mother cried the entire eight-hour drive to Toronto, feeling sad about the happy life they left behind.

Eleven years after living in this country, Disha Kanekar and her family made a critical choice to move to Canada. In 2008, Disha came to this country with her parents. Realizing the uncertainty of their visa situation, her mother Uma persuaded Disha to apply to universities in Canada and as a family they moved there in August 2019. It was a heartbreaking decision. After saying goodbye to her friends and family in Edison, New Jersey, Disha and her mother cried the entire eight-hour drive to Toronto, feeling sad about the happy life they left behind.

The life experiences of the children brought to this country by their parents on H-1B visa, has affected their parents as well. The dire situation of these young adults makes their parents very sad about the decisions they have made for themselves without realizing their repercussions on their children. As Anind Debnath, a father of a daughter approaching the age of 21, puts it: “In my family we cannot think of getting split. We want to be together. Right? So, this is causing a lot of stress. There’s depression and the problem is real.” He says in order to keep the family together, he is ready to leave his job, and move his family back to India and it would not be hard for him as well as his wife to resettle there. But he is concerned about the plight of his children who hardly know India. “For our kids it is real immigration. They will be devastated.”

Legal Recourse

In December 2019, Entry Law, an Oregon based immigration firm, filed a lawsuit in a federal court on behalf of immigrant children and their parents to save H-4 kid’s rights and save them from aging out due to extremely long waiting times for Indians getting their green cards. Brent Renison, the lead attorney, argues that provisions of the Child Status Protection Act (“CSPA”) must be applied equally to children regardless of the national origin of their parents. CSPA was enacted in 2002 to prevent minor children from “aging out” when they reach 21 years of age and losing eligibility to immigrate together with their parents. Presently, however, children whose parents are born in India are not protected from aging out due to the per country limitations which result in decades long waits, while children with other national origins remain protected. This violates the Equal Protection component of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. 

Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat who represents greater Silicon Valley, sponsored the bill HR 1044 – the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which would eliminate the per country cap of 7 percent, and clear the backlog of skilled foreign workers waiting for green cards. This bill was passed in the House on July 10, 2019. The Senate is now debating S386 – Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, introduced in July 2019, to eliminate the per-country quota for employment-based immigrants. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, has been trying to add language to the bill to expedite the number of employment-based green cards available each year. As a result, the Act S386 is stuck in the senate.

A glimmer of hope is what many activist groups like Skilled Immigrants in America (SIIA) and Immigration Voice, among others are doing to put pressure on the Congress to pass the Act S 386. They are organizing rallies and are writing petitions to their congressmen and senators to put an end to the plight of these children. Numerous H-4 children are using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media to reach out to Sen. Durbin to support their cause. 

Animesh, Janvi, Dhara, Disha, Sanaa and Sumana are among 90,000 kids who constitute a different class of Dreamers – immigrants brought to this country legally as children. They are hoping that ultimately the law will change and the political leadership will fix the system.

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a post-doctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received Fulbright scholarship for field work in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

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  • The pain of these kids, and longterm effects of this discrimination are real. What are these families being punished for, following rules, being law abiding. This is not fairness, this is not beneficial to anyone. We need to raise more awareness of this gross injustice and pass laws to elevate the hardship for these families.

  • I think this article does an excellent job of looking at the issues with the current systems the US hasn’t in place to grant citizenship to legal immigrants. It not only addresses the legislative issues that make it all but impossible for people to get their green cards, but it also takes an in-depth look at the personal struggles this broken system causes. It is hypocritical for the US to claim it provided opportunity and freedom for those coming legally from other countries when we can see firsthand that it has been tearing families apart because of poorly organized and prejudiced systems for gaining status as a legal citizen .

  • It is dreaded thing for all the H-1B holders who are living with their families in this country. In many forums I see people comment that “immigration is not a right, it is a pleasure” but I would like to say that this was not a practice couple of years back and everybody just hanged in here with the thought that some day their “date” would become current. But with this ongoing chocking and no movement, it looks impossible that the date will become current unless something is done … So senators must understand this and do something for the tax paying, law-abiding people who are living for almost a decade in this country and on the edge. It’s becoming more important now since so many kids are soon to be aged out. So something needs to be done very soon.

  • Very informative article about the Visa struggles of these young people who are simply disadvantaged because of timing and their parents immigration status. Thank you for writing and publishing this article!

  • This article clearly demonstrates the anguishing dilemma for young H4 Visa holders and their families. Clearly, immigration reform is urgent.

  • These are the stories that need to be told right now — thank you for sharing them. It is heartbreaking to hear how children my age are being forced out of this country after living here their whole lives. It is unbelievable that they are being discriminated during the college admissions process and in internships, not because of their ability but because of their immigration status.

    For those who still don’t believe it is the public’s duty to protect the rights of these legal dreamers, please consider this. Many of them have come to the United States with their families when they were very little. They followed their parents here in pursuit of a better life. So why are they being punished for that? The United States has been their only home, and they are American in everything but in name. They are American in their values, their lifestyles, and their dreams. They love their country, they belong here, and they deserve to be treated fairly.

    We can’t ignore their struggles.

    • I am very fortunate to be interning with Professor Pandey and hearing many of these stories firsthand. In the last two months, I have been exposed to so many issues and perspectives that I had never considered before. Through articles like this one, we can help more people understand the legal dreamers’ situation and the threat of aging out — mainstream media has not covered this enough, so thank you for bringing attention to the problem. I look forward to continuing our work and continuing to advocate for immigration reform.

  • Great insights into an unfortunate situation that many young people in this country are facing. The evidence you provide makes clear that the American models of immigration, higher education, and hiring have some glaring deficiencies. Well done!

  • Thank you for writing this! Brings to light a glaring issue in H4 visa immigration policy. I hope your writing and education on this issue brings a larger magnifying glass to the policy and leads to reform. Well done.

  • Very well written on such a relevant issue which needs attention . It’s an unfair world and this is a very good example.It’s daunting to think and learn about the plight of these H4 visa children.These are lesser known facts that needs to be told and addressed as well.Destiny got them here and now after they turn 21 , they need to struggle in various spectrums to avail the basics which they are denied despite no fault of theirs.They go through a lot of stress during the most blissful years of their life , figuring out how they can resolve these issues and get to stay back in the American culture in which they have been completely engrossed by now.

  • Being able to intern for Professor Pandey and work with her on this research was such a remarkable experience. Hearing the stories of Legal Dreamers allowed me to realize how I could have just as easily been in the same boat as these H4 children, yet I was fortunate enough to be born here. The struggles they are going through are tragic, yet hardly anyone in the country is aware of their story. Their immigration status holds them back in their pursuit of their dreams due to visa status discrimination in both the workplace as well as the education system. They have done nothing wrong – it is the immigration system that has wronged them and it has to be changed. Thank you Professor for creating this project, as it is one that really deserves more attention. Immigration reform must be implemented immediately – these kids deserve to live out the same American Dream that every other child is given the opportunity to strive for.

  • Being on Professor Pandey’s intern team and participating in her work has been really amazing. I have learned so much about legal dreamers and about visas in general. I learned the effect it has on teen my age and I am hoping that by working on this project with Professor Pandey we can help spread awareness on the topic and maybe we can help make a change. This article is amazing overall and deserves more attention because of how this topic isn’t really talked about in schools or the media. And without researchers and advocates like Professor Pandey I maybe not have been able to learn about Legal Dreamers at all.

  • Thank you so much for sharing our stories! This was truly an insightful and informative article that I am sure will educate those who had no idea of this issue. I appreciate all the time and effort you and your intern team have put into learning about Legal Dreamers and the unique circumstances we have gone through. This situation definitely deserves to have more attention because of its pressing nature and your article is doing a beautiful job raising awareness for it! Thank you so much again.

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