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Damned for Being Documented, Young Immigrants Face Prospect of Self-Deportation

There are more than 200,000 immigrants in the U.S. who would qualify for a reprieve from deportation and work permits under a program created by former President Barack Obama, but for the requirement of being undocumented when it started.

HOUSTON (CN) — They are the children of immigrants who came to the U.S. to start businesses or fill jobs for companies in need of their skills. But as they enter adulthood their documented status works against them. Now with a sympathetic president in office, they are pushing for a solution that lets them permanently stay in the country they grew up in.

The backgrounds of immigrants known as Dreamers are well-known with poll after poll showing a large majority of Americans support legislation giving them a route to citizenship. They were brought to the country as young children by their parents, grew up here and stayed out of trouble. Yet because they are undocumented, they had no way to legally remain in the country.

That changed in 2012, when the Obama administration started Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. If accepted into DACA, enrollees are protected from deportation and can obtain work permits in a status they can renew every two years.

But one criterion for DACA has excluded hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who would otherwise qualify for the program: “had no lawful status on June 15, 2012.”

Mily Herrera, 16, moved to Texas at age 6. Her parents brought her and her older brother Diego, 19, here because they wanted to give them a better future, away from the violence and corruption of their home country Mexico.

Their mother Sandra, 57, said she and her husband, a longtime pilot for Aeroméxico, also wanted some economic stability in case he loses that job amid the volatility of the airline industry. So they obtained E-2 visas, a type citizens of Canada and Mexico can use to start businesses in the U.S. Although neither of them had any experience cutting hair, they opened a Supercuts salon in Houston in 2014.

Though Sandra estimates they have employed hundreds of U.S. citizens and residents at their salon, their E-2 visas cannot be used as stepping stones to more secure immigration status. And the countless consultations they have had with immigration attorneys, searching for other options, have been fruitless.

 “We don’t have a path to citizenship with the visa we have now. … There’s no possible way,” Sandra said.

Mily and Diego have the same status as their parents. But once they turn 21 they will lose it because they will no longer be considered dependents.

They can get student visas for college. But once they graduate they have to self-deport, or try to get an employee-sponsored H1-B visa. But H1-B visas are a crapshoot because the government caps them at 85,000 per year and randomly allocates them.

Because Mily’s status does not allow her to get a job, she is left out of some conversations with her friends.

“All of my friends right now are planning on getting summer jobs because we’re all 16," she said. "They’re getting the traditional high school experience and they’re planning about college and their careers…And it’s difficult to hear so many people have their plans, that this isn’t even something they would ever have to worry about.”

FILE- In this Aug. 15, 2017, file photo, a woman holds up a signs in support of the Obama administration program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, during an immigration reform rally at the White House in Washington. After months of delays, President Donald Trump is expected to decide soon on the fate of so called “dreamers” who were brought into the country illegally as children as he faces a looming court deadline and is digging in on appeals to his base. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Mily said many of her friends don’t understand when she tries to explain the difference between herself and those who qualify for DACA and the limitations of her status.

“I’ve had a bunch of my friends ask me why I don’t just get a green card. And it’s sort of frustrating to explain that that’s just not a possibility for many people,” she said.

Harishree Karthikeyasubburaj came to the U.S. at age 7 from India after her father, a software engineer, got an H-1B visa through an employer. She has lived in Dallas with her parents for the last 13 years. Just 21, she has a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and is now pursuing a master’s in the same field at the University of Texas at Dallas.


Growing up, Karthikeyasubburaj said, she felt no different from her friends who are U.S. citizens. That changed when she entered college.

“Honestly until I was like 18 starting university, I did not know the specifics of my status. I just did not know much of anything about visas. I wasn’t exposed to it. My parents dealt with all of it,” she said.

“I saw myself just like my friends,” she added. “So that hit very hard when I realized that ‘Oh no. I’m very different.’ … I couldn’t get a simple job, like just work at the library or something like that. … But honestly what hit worse was that there was a chance I’d have to leave.”

Her status has forced her to tailor her career goals to a field where she has a better chance of getting an H1-B visa like her father. She is specializing in data science in her master’s program.

She said her initial goal was to attend medical school, but because she is considered an international student and no Texas medical schools accept such students for MD programs, she would have had to attend one out of state. “I’d be in at least $500,000 debt. So it’s just not a viable option for me," she said.

While H1-B visa holders can obtain green cards, and if they get them their spouses and children can too, it’s unrealistic for Indian children to think this will happen before they turn 21 and are forced to fend for themselves in the U.S. immigration system.

The U.S. limits immigrants of any single country to no more than 7% of the green cards made available in a given year.

Since so many Indians have moved to U.S. on H1-B visas, they must wait decades before their place in line comes up allowing them to apply for green cards, long past the time their children would have been eligible to tag-along on their applications.

For Karthikeyasubburaj that means once she obtains her master’s degree she’ll have to pursue another degree, take her chances on trying to get an H1-B visa via an employer, or move back to India, which she said she has not prepared for.

“Honestly, it’s kind of like a nightmare,” she said with a laugh. “And you’d think I should be prepared but I honestly don’t know how to prepare.”

She’s also considering trying to move to Canada, which she said is more welcoming to immigrants than the U.S.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients listen to speakers during a news conference in front of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the DACA program Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Phoenix. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled President Donald Trump improperly ended the program that protects immigrants brought to the country as children and allows them to legally work, keeping the people enrolled in DACA. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

As founder of Improve the Dream, Dip Patel, 25, splits his time between caring for patients as a pharmacist at a rural hospital in Illinois and educating congressional staffers about “documented Dreamers” like the Herreras, Karthikeyasubburaj and himself, who have been left out of the DACA program.

Experts say there are more than 200,000 immigrants in the U.S. who would qualify for DACA but for the requirement of being undocumented when former President Barack Obama started the program.

Like the Herreras, Patel’s parents are business owners. After moving to Canada from India when Patel was 4, they obtained E-2 visas a few years later, moved to southern Illinois and opened a convenience store.

As with many young immigrants facing the possibility of having to leave the country they consider home, Patel seems wise beyond his years. His maturity could be attributable to the fact he’s had to learn to navigate the country’s byzantine immigration system.

“I grew up as American as my neighbors, participating in school clubs and playing baseball, soccer and tennis,” Patel wrote in a December 2020 op-ed for NBC News. “Upon turning 21, I had to give up my E-2 status, however, and switch to an international student visa. After graduating with a doctor of pharmacy degree, I started working at a suburban Chicago hospital under the Optional Practical Training program, which thankfully gives one year of work authorization to international students.”

Patel said he wanted to stay at that suburban hospital to care for Covid-19 patients, but because of immigration laws there was no way for it to retain him.

“I was going to have to self-deport,” he said in a phone interview. “Thankfully, I was able to find a rural hospital that was willing to keep me on this temporary status, called a TN status that's available to Mexican and Canadian citizens in certain professions. … So I have another couple years before I might have to self-deport.”

If he qualified for DACA, Patel said, he wouldn’t have these problems as the DACA work authorization is universal – if one has it, they can work wherever they want.

Patel said at first his parents were apprehensive about him advocating for other immigrants because of his status. But they have come around as they see the progress he’s making with the help of a network of over 2,000 parents and children he has built through social media and online meetings.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Dream and Promise Act and included a way for both DACA recipients and documented Dreamers to become citizens.

A bipartisan group of senators has also started discussions on immigration reform legislation. Patel said he hopes anything the group comes up with to benefit DACA recipients includes documented Dreamers. 

“My whole vision is just all children who come here, whether they are documented or undocumented, who grow up here should have that same path," he said. "Like being documented or undocumented shouldn’t be a deciding factor. It certainly shouldn't be a requirement to be undocumented. That doesn't make sense.”

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