Children of immigrants fear deportation when they turn 21

DETROIT – Growing up in the U.S., Padma Danturty had a typical American upbringing: She played soccer, made friends, studied hard in class and looked forward to adult life in the U.S.

But as she got older and prepared to apply for part-time jobs and college like her peers, Danturty began to realize her circumstances were different.

Despite having lived in the U.S. legally ever since she immigrated as a baby, the 19-year-old doesn’t qualify for many jobs or scholarships and may have to deport herself when she turns 21.

The only way to escape her fate is if her parents manage to obtain permanent resident status, which is unlikely to happen before they die. 

Born in India, Danturty arrived in the U.S. when she was 8 months old along with her parents, who came on student visas to study at universities. They later obtained H1-B work visas after getting engineering jobs, which allowed them and their daughter to remain legally in the U.S. 

University of Michigan freshman Padma Danturty, 19, from Aurora, Ill., poses for a photo in the lobby of her dorm room on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. Danturty is a documented dreamer, a child of legal immigrants on temporary work visas who's lived in the US for most of their lives.

But while her parents can stay in the U.S. for now, Danturty will soon be considered undocumented in a couple of years when she turns 21. Until her parents can get permanent residency — which the Cato Institute says can take on average 90 to 150 years for immigrants like them — she will soon be out of status. 

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There are an estimated 200,000 young people in the U.S. like Danturty who may be forced to leave once they become of legal age. Known as “Documented Dreamers,” the children are in a limbo state, unsure of their future and without the legal protections that are afforded undocumented children under the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, often known as Dreamers in reference to the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act that would give them a path to citizenship.

“The worst part of this whole thing is that there’s no security,” said Danturty, a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “I started realizing … if this doesn’t work out, I could end up having to deport.”

Padma Danturty when she was a baby with her mother and grandmother at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

‘They don’t have a path’

Advocates say allowing the children of immigrants on work visas to stay can benefit the U.S. by contributing to a skilled workforce needed in fields such as technology and medicine, noting the doctor shortage in many rural areas.

During a U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday, U.S. Rep. Deborah Ross, a Democrat, talked about the concerns of children like Danturty, asking Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to give Documented Dreamers the same protections as DACA recipients.

“I’ve heard from countless young people … who dream of giving back to the country in which they’ve spent nearly all their life,” Ross said.

Mayorkas said in response that documented Dreamers “should have access to relief because they’ve known the United States as their home and have contributed to this country.” But he added that his department has no plans to offer them protections, saying that the solution is for Congress “to pass immigration reform, to pass legislation to provide a path for those individuals.”

In April, the House Judiciary Committee voted 22 to 14 to advance a bill known as the Eagle Act that would grant relief by reducing the wait times for parents seeking permanent residency. The Senate Judiciary Committee in March held a hearing that featured testimony from a Documented Dreamer from Texas, Athulya Rajakumar. She studied journalism and her brother pursued law school, both hoping to spark changes that could help young immigrants like themselves.

“We thought, if we cannot fight the immigration system, maybe we can work to help change it,” she said, her voice beginning to strain with emotion. “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.”

The fear of being separated from their families and thrown into a foreign nation despite living in the U.S. for much of their lives has caused anxiety and uncertainty for many like Rajakumar. It has led to some putting on hold plans to become doctors or pursuing fields out of the tech industries because of complex visa rules.

Priya Ganji, 19, of the University of Michigan, faces being deported when she turns 21, even though she and her parents immigrated legally to the U.S. There are about 200,000 'Documented Dreamers' like her in the country.

Priya Ganji, also a student at the University of Michigan, is facing a similar situation, having arrived in the U.S. in fourth grade along with her parents. 

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“I constantly dread the possibility of me turning 21 and having to self deport myself from the only country I’ve known to call home,” said Ganji, 19. “I feel constantly torn. … As an Indian, I cannot go back to India, fearing the loss of my American visa status. As an American, I’m never fully able to embrace my true identity because the state failed to recognize me as an American citizen.”

In addition to children of those on H1-B visas, others affected include the children of immigrants on other visa programs such as EB-2, which is for those with advanced degrees or exceptional ability, or those on E-2 investor visas, which admit people who will open businesses that employ a certain number of Americans.

Danturty is currently on an H-4 visa, which is for children of immigrants on H1-B visas, often obtained by those in the IT and engineering industries. It expires when she turns 21, unless her parents would be able to obtain permanent residency, often known as a green card. But the chances of that are slim, due to quotas per country that limit the number who can get permanent residency under a 1990 immigration law that critics say is outdated.

Under the Immigration Act of 1990, a foreign nation can get only up to 7% each of the total number of employment-based and family-based visas in a year, according to the Migration Policy Institute. 

That means immigrants from nations such as India, a populous country with many tech and engineering graduates, have a more difficult time obtaining those visas compared with immigrants from smaller nations. The law effectively makes all Indian immigrants compete for a limited number of green cards. The Eagle Act would seek to address the green card backlog by doubling the 7% cap to 15% for family-based visas and remove the per-country cap for employment-based immigrant visas.

U.S. Reps. Haley Stevensand Brenda Lawrence, both Democrats, were cosponsors of the bill. It failed to pass the House last year, but has been reintroduced. 

“People who are equally qualified and in some cases more qualified are failing” to get permanent residency, said Democratic U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren during a committee hearing, “just because of their country of birth. That’s not merit-based. That’s not the opportunity society America is.”

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat, said in the hearing there are 200,000 immigrants facing employment visa backlogs and an additional 1.6 million facing family visa backlogs who “will die before they ever receive green cards.”

Compounding the problem is that the U.S. government is not issuing its allotted green cards, said immigrant advocates. Data released this month showed that the U.S. failed to issue a quarter of the available employment-based cards for fiscal year 2021, said the Cato Institute.

In addition to the Eagle Act, immigrant advocates are hoping to get an additional bill, America’s Children Act, passed to help children who have already turned 21 or may age out of legal status within the next year. 

A majority of the children facing this challenge are originally from India, with others from South Korea, Mexico, China and some European nations, said Dip Patel, founder of Improve the Dream, a group that advocates for such children to have a path to citizenship.

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Patel, himself a documented dreamer in Illinois born to immigrants on an E-2 visa, monitors cases across the U.S.

“Many Americans assume that there is a path to citizenship for people who have been here a long time, but that’s not true,” Patel said, “… they don’t have a path.”

In a statement to the Free Press, a part of the USA TODAY Network, Sharon Rummery, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, said the department “is keenly aware of the situation that documented dreamers immigrant youth face.

“The Department is exploring legal methods to provide immigration relief to this population where possible and has supported the inclusion of immigration reform in previous pieces of legislation which would have helped some nonimmigrant dependents whose eligibility expired due to age,” Rummery said.

The department “continues to review all immigration-related policies, procedures and regulations — and work closely with Congress and stakeholders — to protect those must vulnerable and break down barriers in the immigration system … committed to maximizing the number of employment-based green cards,” Rummery said.

Fear of deportation to unfamiliar land

Having lived in the U.S. since she was infant, Danturty can’t imagine having to live in India. 

She was born in Visakhapatnam, a coastal city in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, from which many Indian immigrants in computer and scientific fields hail.

“My mother tongue is Telugu, but I can barely speak it,” she said. “So it would be really hard to communicate. … And I have no idea what the job market is like there. I don’t really know the culture well. It would be really super challenging.”

University of Michigan freshman Padma Danturty, 19, from Aurora, Ill., works on history homework in her dorm room on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. Danturty is a documented dreamer, a child of legal immigrants on temporary work visas who's lived in the US for most of their lives.

Other problems for children of parents awaiting permanent residency include obtaining driver’s licenses, getting jobs and internships that may require a more permanent status and having to pay tuition costs that are higher because they’re designated international students. They’re also often ineligible for scholarships because they’re not technically American students, even though they’ve lived in the U.S. for most of their lives.

Sai Upparapalli moved with her parents to the U.S. at age 3 and is now a freshman at Michigan State University. Like Danturty, she has no experience living in India and can’t imagine moving back there to live and work. 

“This is my home,” said Upparapalli, 18. “I’ve lived here since I could remember, since I could start forming memories. I would be moved to a place that I’m not familiar with. This is home for me because this is all I’ve ever known. So it would have been hard for me if I had to go back to India. And I shouldn’t have to do that because I’ve been here for so long. I’ve done everything: We pay taxes, we do everything just like everyone else here, so why can’t we stay here like everyone else?”

In high school, Upparapalli was unable to apply for part-time jobs and now can’t get internships because of her lack of permanent status.

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Anxiety about the future

The challenges and unclear future have led to anxiety problems for many students. 

“Uncertainty in life can have many detrimental effects on the human body,” said Ganji, a student at the University of Michigan. “For me, life always seems to be uncertain.”

Ganji had dreams of being a medical doctor, inspired by the work of health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. But because of her immigration status, “that dream seemed to be pulled away from me,” because she would be considered an international student when applying for medical school. 

Getting admitted into medical school is already challenging, but “there are even fewer seats reserved for international students like me,” she said. “… It’s a blockade put on many of our dreams. I know many people like me in the same position, who chose their career path due to their visa status, rather than their passions and dreams.”

One thing that has helped the students and their families: support groups and networks that allow them to share information and tips. Ganji belongs to The Hidden Dream, a nonprofit formed in 2019 that offers advice on how to navigate life as the child of immigrants on work visas and offers scholarship opportunities, visa processing help and therapy sessions. 

Advocates ask legislators for relief

State Rep. Padma Kuppa, a Democrat, the daughter of immigrants and an immigrant herself, has been supportive and is working on ways to get driver’s licenses for immigrants, but the ultimate solution to help the children requires federal legislation. In March, Kuppa introduced a state House resolution urging Congress to pass bills such as the Eagle Act that would reduce the green-card backlog. 

At a March 15 U.S. Senate hearing, Senators on the judiciary committee, including ranking members Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, and judiciary committee chair Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, said they intend to work on moving the America’s Children Act and other legislation. 

“I held this hearing today because we cannot allow the inaction of Congress to continue to exacerbate the challenges many immigrants face in seeking lawful permanent resident status,” U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat, said in a statement after the hearing. “The United States was founded as a nation of immigrants, and it’s time to honor that spirit once again.”

In November 2021, several U.S. House representatives and Senators sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security asking that the children of immigrants facing deportation get the protections that DACA recipients receive. 

Opponents of bills such as the Eagle Act include Republicans who fear the U.S. is letting in too many immigrants, citing problems at the southern border and national security threats from China. 

A group that wants to reduce immigration, the Center for Immigration Studies, founded by the late anti-immigrant activist Dr. John Tanton, posted an article in April opposing the Eagle Act, warning that it would allow too many Asians to enter the U.S. 

“Looking back about 100 years ago, Congress was passing immigration legislation that aimed to preserve most migrant slots for people from northern and western Europe. Now the House committee is tipping exactly the other way and is discriminating in favor of people from China and India,” the group wrote.

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‘So much to worry about’

Danturty’s parents arrived in the U.S. on H1-B visas in 1999, but lost their jobs a few years later and then moved back to India, where Danturty was born.

They returned to the U.S. in 2003 on an F1 student visa, studying business at the University of Connecticut, then moved to Houston and later Illinois, working in data analysis and market research. 

Danturty realized as a teenager her family’s immigration status was different from citizens when they had to travel to Canada to get multiple-entry stamps before traveling to India to visit family. 

“Once that started happening, it was kind of like, you’re not really like everyone else, you’re not a citizen,” she said. “I just realized that we were a little bit different.”

Initially, the family was optimistic they would get permanent residency, which would allow Danturty to stay.

“At that time, my parents had kept convincing me that everything would be fine, that we’d eventually get our green cards,” she said. “Like it wouldn’t be a problem when I got to college, because I would at least have a green card by then. But that didn’t end up happening.”

Padma Danturty works on history homework in her dorm room on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022.

She worries about her future because the line for her parents to get permanent residency is “so backlogged, because there’s so many immigrants from India that are trying to apply for a green card,” with per-country quotas limiting each nation to 7% of all the green cards.

“So it’s not just that they’re on the visa, it’s that we’re from India,” she said. “They can only issue certain amount of green cards ever year.”

Danturty and other students like her have had to defer or modify some of their dreams. She would have liked to study history, but with her immigration status, that would be risky, because if she couldn’t find a job to sponsor her visa, she would be deported.

“I have a passion for history, but I know that it’s just so much less employable than a STEM degree,” she said. “So we feel kind of pushed to go in that direction.”  

“It just feels like I have so much to worry about, even though I’m 19 and I just started college.”

Follow Niraj Warikoo on Twitter: @nwarikoo.