- 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
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.
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.”
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’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.
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.”
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.