As the new year begins, new legislatures convene in state legislative chambers across the country and Washington, D.C. Fortunately, in Lansing, Democrats have the first trifecta in decades — unlike the partisan split between a Republican majority House of Representatives and a Democratic majority Senate in our nation’s capital. Michigan’s House and Senate are in control of the state-level agenda and can create policies and craft budgets that reflect our shared values. I can now turn my attention to a federal-level issue that my legislative team and I heard about frequently: immigration.
It started with young people, and specifically a young man who qualified to be a presidential scholar — one of only 100 high school students across the country. Dhanush and his parents came to my office hours early on, to share his story. He wanted to go to med school with the financial support that he merited. But because his parents were stuck in the green card backlog, his career choices were severely limited. They wanted me to impact federal policy and elevate the issues faced by legal immigrants. Through similar office hours, emails, phone calls and meetings with people from Troy — and also people across the state and the country — I heard many more stories that kept me up at night. I discovered that my personal experiences navigating the horrible bureaucracy of the legal immigration process really made it easier to understand these concerns. The nightmare my parents faced in the 1970s (documented in my father’s book Nightmare and Network), the challenges I overcame in the 1990s going from F1 to H1B to permanent resident, the continued difficulties faced by friends and colleagues across the country, all contrast sharply with the gift of American birthright.
In my first term, I was so happy to advocate for S386 (introduced in 2019 and HRes 1044 in 2020), to increase the per-country cap for immigrant visas and eliminate the 7% cap for employment-based immigrant visas. I forwarded the emails we received to my federal-level elected officials and shared the value of these policy fixes to our immigration process. The staff in Sen. Gary Peters’ and Congresswoman Haley Stevens’ offices were easy to engage and happy to help. On the flip side, I found it absurd that organizations like SAALT, EMgage Action and other Asian American organizations actively campaigned against the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, especially when I heard from so many young Asian Americans in Michigan similar to Atulya Rajkumar, a young woman from the state of Washington who provided heart-wrenching testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
In my second term, I took up two things that affect immigrants. One was a state-level issue to allow all drivers to qualify for and get a driver’s license — something that had passed in multiple states across the country. However, these “Drive Safe” bills had stagnated in Lansing for more than a decade. I advanced them to a hearing and expected to receive the votes to move them further in the legislative process. The hearing was later canceled on the whim of the Speaker who eventually didn’t honor a rescheduling request that we had discussed. While I understood the partisan politics that held back the hearing, what was most challenging was that the Drive Michigan Forward coalition didn’t advocate strongly for all immigrants to get driver’s licenses; their focus was limited to those who are undocumented. But I had allies and advocates aplenty, from colleague Mary Cavanagh who now serves in the state senate to constituents like Shristi, who reached out because she needed a driver’s license to transfer from a community college to a university. Shristi’s parents, too, were stuck in the green card backlog, so it was a double whammy for her — unable to get a license or get a job due to her visa status.
Realizing that politics is the art of the possible and that I had an opportunity to elevate these issues, I approached and made inroads with my Republican colleague Jack O’Malley. I introduced HR 248 with him as a lead cosponsor, a resolution urging Congress to pass the EAGLE Act or something similar to eliminate country caps. I shared the arguments made both by national advocacy organizations and by young people across my district, Michigan and the country. I highlighted the efforts of the nonprofit advocacy organization, Improve the Dream and did my best as a state-level elected official to improve the understanding of our federal representatives on these issues. Now it’s on all of us who were able to get through the alphabet soup from F1 to H1 and eventually citizenship, to advocate for country cap and other legal immigration reforms.
Padma Kuppa is the former State Representative for Michigan’s 41st House District. A mother, an engineer from NIT Warangal, and an automotive and IT professional for over 2 decades, and a civic and interfaith leader for years, she is the first Indian immigrant and Hindu in the Michigan state legislature.