- The siblings are among about 190,000 kids and young adults in the U.S., who can no longer stay in the U.S on an H-4 visa or even get a permanent residence through their parents.
Sobhana* Mani was five when she came to the United States as a dependent under her father’s work visa in 2006. For the last 15 years, America has been her home — growing up in Kentucky, and Michigan. This December, she will “age out” and self-deport instead of celebrating her 21st birthday in the only place she knows as home. She feels helpless, humiliated, and abandoned by the U.S. immigration system. This heartbreaking story tells us the horrific situation of the H4 aging-out kids who become aliens despite living their whole life in this country.
Under H-4 visa rules, Sobhana is dependent on her parents until age 21. She needs an F-1 visa as a full-time international student to continue living in the U.S., But there’s a catch. Sobhana cannot even apply for F-1without a valid H-4. Her visa with her mother and little brother expired in June 2021 and is pending at the USCIS.
Sobhana is among about 190,000 kids and young adults in the U.S. today for whom aging out of their families’ visas is a genuine concern, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The Waiting Game “Aging out” happens primarily because of the green card backlog of the H-1B visa holders, mainly from India. Their children on H-4 visas will age out at the age of 21. In 2016, Sobhana’s father’s employer, filed a petition ( I140) for his green card, and since then, he and his family have been waiting and waiting.
H-1B visa holders and their H-4 dependents have to renew their visas every three years — some even every year. Immigration attorney Diya Mathews, a partner at Chugh LLP firm, says that her Indian clients — H-1B visa holders — are meticulous about maintaining legal status. “They make sure their extensions are timely and file extensions for the children; they report to us immediately if a work visa is denied,” she says. “So nobody wants to take the chance when it comes to their legal status in the U.S.”
Sobhana’s parents sent the visa renewal application in December 2020, six months before the permit expired. After waiting for a couple of months, they found out from her father, Mani’s employer, that the renewal application never reached the USCIS. According to Sobhana’s mother, when the family came to know in March that FedEx lost their H-4 extension application, “our life came to a screeching halt. They re-applied right away.” She feared that Shobhana would lose her H-4.
Mani got his H1- B visa renewed through premium processing for a hefty $2,500 fee. But the family H-4 renewal is still pending since it does not qualify for premium renewal, leaving the family in limbo.
Kids on Dependent Visas
Given her visa status, Sobhana could not apply to graduate school. “Finally, when I am graduating, things have not happened the way I wanted to get my F1,” she says. Her mother became unemployed twice in a row, once due to COVID lay off and another due to the USCIS backlog. Sobhana’s brother, 17-year-old Vimal*, in 12th grade, cannot apply to college without his H-4 visa.
Shobhna became aware of her aging-out situation while she was in middle school. She says her parents stressed that she had to complete her college education before she reached “the magic age of 2I.” She was under pressure and was anxious to excel in her studies. Unlike her peers, she did not have a social life. Her visa would not allow her to earn pocket money and her only aim was to finish college in three years. She could not apply for an F-1 visa earlier in college as the fees would have been three times more expensive.
According to attorney Mathews, “it is the hardest for H-4 youth to handle the trauma and anxiety of being treated differently.” She says one of her “aging out” kids had several arrest records, including DUI. The parents explained that it was all a result of anxiety around his immigration status. They had to spend a lot of money on his college tuition, and he could never get a job and was dependent on his parents. “There was no solution in sight.” Mathews, who went through the “aging out” status earlier, says, “I feel like I’ve traveled with them. It is a pity that the child knows only American life but becomes a foreigner at twenty-one.”
H-4 Visa Expiration Consequences
The imminent danger of the deportation of the 21-year-old daughter and the fear of their son not applying to college is breaking the Mani family apart. They have sent expedited requests through Senators and the USCIS Ombudsman’s office. Both Sobhana and Vimal had submitted separate expedited requests with an appeal that their education is in limbo.
Additionally, Sobhana appealed to the White House to accelerate the approval of her H-4 so she could switch to F-1 before losing status in this country. But to her dismay, the White House referred her letter to the USCIS, who sent her a rejection letter. Sobhana lost hope of continuing higher education and staying with her family in the U.S.
Mani’s family recently received H4 RFE (Request for Initial Evidence) with two options: to withdraw Sobhana’s H4 application to guarantee the H-4 validity for the mother and son till March 2024 (spouse H-1B valid date). The second option is if Sobhana does not withdraw, USCIS will give the short validity to all three dependents until she becomes out of status at the end of December 2021.
Her mother had to make a hard choice. She will get her H-4 EAD and a job with the first option, but her daughter will become an alien from June 2021. “If I withdraw her, it will cancel out her college education, and she has nowhere to go. Choosing between my job and career vs. my daughter’s life, I decided to choose my daughter’s security.”
At the end of December, Shobhana has to make the hard choice to leave the U.S. for a country she hardly knows. Matthews says, “for H-4 visa kids who have been in the U.S. from a very young age, it is tough to go back.” Shobhana started looking for options in Canada. She wrote a request letter to a Canadian university. Initially, they were hesitant to give her the student visa.
When she explained her situation and what she went through here, the Canadian government approved her visa for a Master’s in computer engineering from January 2022. “If I did not go to Canada, I would have gone back to India,” she says. “I feel fed up with this system. I don’t want to come back and start the whole H-1B visa process. My parents, on H-1B and H-4, have struggled, and I do not want to put myself in their situation.”
Attorney Mathews says that “these kids’ lives are in limbo because they are denied so many opportunities. Many of these bright kids go to Canada. Once they become a Canadian citizen, it is easier to get a work permit to the U.S.”
Shobhana is reconciled to her situation as she never felt included in the U.S. system. “It is punishing me for no fault of mine.” For her, this whole process has been very stressful and discouraging. “Every step I tried, I felt defeated. No one is here to hear our story. We did everything right, but the USCIS rejected our request for the expedited process.”
Shobhana’s father has been a diabetic patient for the past 15 years and is struggling to cope with his health due to severe stress, and her mother has high blood pressure and heart-related complications. She has stopped taking care of their health due to increased insurance costs and her job loss. She says: “both my children, my husband, and my old-aged parents in India all are into a deep depression and mental stress.” She laments that they cannot visit India to see their ailing parents.
She has already lost her job, her health, and finally, her daughter. “My job loss as the product manager in an IT team at Ford Motors has affected my children’s education and our medical needs.”
Like the Mani family, many others realize that they have created wealth for this country by working hard. They have been paying taxes. All they have gained are losing their family life and, finally, alienation from their children. They never imagined this tragedy.
This human tragedy requires serious consideration by the political leaders and gurus of high-tech industries who have benefitted from the labor of H-1B and H-4 EAD visa holders. The plight of their “ aging out” children is heartbreaking, and they end up having the worst experience of leaving this country and alienating themselves from their struggling parents. They paid a heavy price for being H-4 dependents in this “Dreamland” where they can not acquire stable employment and secure visa status.
*The name has been changed to hide the identity of the source.
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 postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the 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 a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork 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.