December 1, 2023

Immigration Green Card

Immigration Is Good For You

UT grad faces self-deportation despite heeding immigration law

6 min read

For Athulya Rajakumar and her mom, this time of year is usually a season for rest and celebration: shopping, cooking, viewing Christmas lights. But Rajakumar hasn’t exactly been in the holiday spirit. It could be her last Christmas at home in the United States. 

Rajakumar came to the U.S. under her mother’s visa. Now, after nearly two decades, the 23-year-old University of Texas graduate may have to deport herself to India because she has aged out of visa protections afforded to specialized visa holders. Her mother, who she lives with in Dallas, has been trying to offer some comfort.

“Most of the day she just spends trying to console me, crying,” said Rajakumar. 

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Even though she and her mother came to the U.S. legally, Rajakumar falls into a growing category of young people known as “documented dreamers.” Like undocumented “dreamers,” she came with her parents to the U.S. as a child. But, unlike her undocumented peers and their parents, she and her mother had visas and have stayed up-to-date on their immigration paperwork. 

“We followed the rules,” said Rajakumar, who left India as a young child. “The only reason I’m in this position is because I don’t want to break the rules.” 

Thousands of kids face similar fates each year: They must either self-deport or find temporary visas through their work or school, according to estimates from the libertarian Cato Institute. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle support revising immigration laws to support these applicants, but partisan gridlock has prevented a solution.

Losing visa while waiting, years, for green card

The predicament Rajakumar and other documented dreamers face is a result of out-of-date laws that fail to reflect labor needs and current immigration flows, according to experts and lawmakers. Foreign-born children of skilled foreign workers lose protection under their parents’ work visas once they turn 21. If they can’t secure another type of visa for themselves, they cannot legally remain in the U.S.

Often, skilled foreign-born workers and their families secure sponsorship for green cards, putting them on a pathway to citizenship. Once this happens, these families don’t have to rely on the work visa renewals in perpetuity. For most nationalities, this visa system isn’t perfect, but it does allow foreign-born children who grew up in the U.S. to have a future in the country. 

Indian children, on the other hand, face many more barriers to staying in the U.S. long term. Their only fault is being born in a country that provides a disproportionate amount of foreign workers to the U.S. economy. 

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About 50 percent of people sponsored for green cards in the last decade come from India, said David Bier, an immigration expert at Cato Institute. But those workers “only received about 10 percent of the green cards,” he said.

“The reason for this disparity is the fact that we have something called country cap limits or per country limits on green cards, which prevents any single nationality from receiving more than 7 percent of the green card cap,” said Bier.

90-year wait for some

He estimates the wait for a green card is about 90 years for Indians who are just now applying. For skilled workers from other countries, it might take just a few years to get a green card because there are less applicants. 

The Cato Institute estimated that in 2020 roughly 157,000 children of Indian immigrants with work visas were waiting in the green card backlog – meaning tens of thousands will age out of their parents’ visa protections before they get through the backlog.

The failure to address this backlog has created a system where multilingual, highly-educated Indian children who were brought to the U.S. legally face uncertain futures in the U.S., and, in some cases, they have to self-deport. Many buy time in the U.S. by pursuing advanced degrees. They can compete as foreign workers and, if they’re lucky, obtain one of the limited work visas available. But these are temporary fixes for people like Rajakumar, who was educated in the U.S. and considers the country home. 

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“My mother came here to give me a better life, more opportunity,” she said. “And the fact that I’m trying to get back on the same visa path that she was, it’s just this vicious circle.” 

This problem has become so widespread among children of Indian high-skilled workers, that Houston-area immigration attorney Rahul Reddy said foreign couples sometimes opt out of coming to the U.S. if they have children to avoid the their children facing penalties if they age out of their visa protection. 

“If they don’t have any kids, they come, they will have kids here, which is not a problem,” Reddy said. “But if they are having kids born there (and) get a job offer to come to the United States… it definitely deters them.” 

Bier, from Cato Institute, said the failure to fix the green card backlog means that talented foreign students and workers are opting to move to other countries. 

“We’re already seeing many more Indian students go to Canada, the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, other countries with a much more direct path to a green card for skilled workers. And then for people who are already here, many more of them are going to leave the country as well,” said Bier. “That’s really huge economic effects because we’re losing out on that talent and their economic contributions.” 

New generation of skilled workers at risk

Another Texan facing this predicament is Niharika Parashar, 27, of Katy, who has a degree in clinical psychology and works as a therapist in Odessa. She’s facing the prospect self-deportation once the visa allowance connected to her degree expires. Not only will she miss out on her work and her legal status, but the mental health field could lose out on a young, multilingual therapist.

“I’m doing what I can do,” said Parashar, who has accepted her unclear future in the U.S., though it gives her anxiety sometimes. “And whatever is not in my control, I guess I’ll just have to deal with it.”

Because her future in the U.S. is uncertain, she’s considering immigrating to Canada.

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There isn’t an easy fix for documented dreamers like Parashar and Rajakumar even though many high profile Republicans and Democrats have supported laws that would protect them. Partisan gridlock in Congress — especially over immigration issues — has prevented the passage of legislation that would resolve this problem.  

Republican Sen. John Cornyn has expressed support for changing immigration laws to eliminate the problem of documented dreamers, however he has also said the historic number of border crossings has derailed the passage of legislation to protect people whose parents followed the law. 

Tired of excuses

Rajakumar, who told her story to Cornyn and other members of the judiciary’s immigration subcommittee, is frustrated with excuses from lawmakers.

In emotional testimony, she discussed how uncertainty around her family’s immigration status exacerbated her brother’s mental health issues, which led to his death.

“His goal was to become an immigration lawyer and speak out for this group of children that America cannot see or refuses to recognize; however, the day before his orientation at the University of Washington, he took his own life,” she said in her testimony. “I flew home and went from writing a school paper to his obituary in less than 24 hours.” 

Rajakumar had hoped going public would make a difference, but lawmakers have yet to act. Now she has just weeks to get into a graduate school to secure a student visa, or she will need to leave the country. If this happens, she plans to go to India. 

“I can’t do anything,” she said, “It’s truly up to the lawmakers and senators to deliver me a Christmas miracle.”


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