For most Americans, turning 21 might mean the freedom to rent a car, buy alcohol or cigarettes, or get into clubs and casinos. But for Pareen Mhatre, turning 21 meant filling out a stack of forms to convince a giant bureaucracy not to kick her out of the only country she knows.
Pareen was 4 months old when her parents, then international students, brought her to the United States. She was raised in Iowa City, where her mom now works as an instructional services manager for the University of Iowa’s College of Nursing and her father serves as a senior applications developer for the College of Medicine. The school sponsored them for green cards nine years ago, but due to crisis-level backlogs, they still have decades to wait. The type of visas that Pareen’s parents are working under were originally meant to last six years, but Congress waived this rule in 2000 so employers could retain their workers as they wait in line for permanent residency.
Frustratingly, Congress failed to make similar accommodations for these workers’ children, whose visas are no longer valid once they turn 21. As a result, Pareen and over 100,000 other young people waiting in the green card line with their parents are projected to “age out” of their visa status over the next 20 years, kicking them out of line and, in many cases, the country. Just like the Dreamers eligible for DACA, many of these kids face the prospect of being returned to a country they have never known. Unlike DACA recipients, who lacked legal status as children but can thankfully drive and work without fear of deportation, these kids still have legal status—but they have no protections once it expires, forcing many of them to choose between self-deportation or overstaying their visa.
For years, these “Documented Dreamers” were excluded from the national dialogue, and their struggles were ignored by Congress. However, this has recently changed thanks to the advocacy efforts of Improve the Dream, a grassroots group created by Documented Dreamer Dip Patel. Patel was born in India and moved to Canada with his parents when he was 4. After turning 9, Dip’s family saw a business opportunity in America and relocated to Illinois.
The Patels quickly hit a wall after learning that their visas effectively blocked them from applying for permanent residency. Unlike Pareen’s family, Dip’s arrived on a visa designed for business investors. While these visas don’t expire, they’re classified as “non-immigrant intent,” meaning that initial applications and renewals can be denied if the bureaucrat assessing them believes that they’re trying to become a permanent resident. Because of this hurdle, the Patels never had the opportunity to apply for a green card, and Dip aged out of his status.
Thankfully, Dip successfully transitioned to a student visa which allowed him to complete his doctor of pharmacy. He then leveraged his Canadian citizenship to apply for a special visa reserved for professionals from NAFTA countries. Dip’s application went through successfully, and he now works full time as a pharmacist, in addition to his advocacy as president of Improve the Dream.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. At every turn, Dip fears being denied his visa over non-immigrant intent. And as he publicly fights for Documented Dreamers, he acknowledges that his highly visible work at Improve the Dream may heighten his risk of being denied when he applies for his visa renewal. But he refuses to let those worries deter him. “If I’m ever denied over non-immigrant intent, the advocacy will have been worth it,” he told me.
After a few years of relative obscurity, Improve the Dream’s efforts have finally given Documented Dreamers a seat at the table. Pareen, who now acts as an advocacy liaison and communications manager for the organization, recently testified before Congress. She mentioned that she just turned 21 two weeks earlier, but that her student visa has been pending for nine months. In order to stay while her student visa was being processed, she had to apply for a tourist visa—which also got delayed. “There are hundreds of thousands of documented children who will or have gone through what I am experiencing,” she told the committee. For many Documented Dreamers, this twisted and expensive game of bureaucratic musical chairs—jumping from visa to visa—can begin long before they turn 21.
If you scroll through Improve the Dream’s posts on Medium, you’ll find that is also true for Lakshmi Parvathinathan. Her family came to the United States on a visa for employees of multinational companies when she was 3. After she spent several formative years here, her father’s visa renewal was rejected when she was a third grader. After a brief return to India, where Lakshmi struggled to learn a language with 247 characters to pass school, her family returned to the United States on the same type of visa, which lasts only five years. To stay in the United States long-term, the Parvathinathans applied for an annual lottery that grants visas to highly skilled workers. After two failed attempts, they eventually won a visa.
When her family won the visa lottery, Lakshmi thought her life in America was finally secure—until she learned about aging out. Staying in the United States, she learned, meant becoming an international student, finding an employer to sponsor her after graduation, then applying for the same lottery her parents did. Then, if she’s lucky, her employer would petition for her green card so she can renew her visa beyond its initial six years of validity. “My enthusiasm for my future quickly turned into fear, and despondent thoughts consumed me,” she wrote.
Since discovering Improve the Dream and meeting others with similar experiences, Lakshmi is beginning to feel heard. Her sense of empowerment grew further when she and a handful of other Documented Dreamers from Improve the Dream traveled to Washington to educate members of Congress about this issue. In addition to their meetings with congressional staffers, they approach any members of Congress they encounter outside the Capitol building:
Joe Manchin randomly lobbied by immigration advocates pic.twitter.com/p4geif2snD
— Steven Dennis (@StevenTDennis) June 17, 2021
And in other places, including the Walmart paper-towel aisle:
Just a typical weekday night, running into House Republican Whip @SteveScalise while shopping.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to us! pic.twitter.com/z5j8urwznk
— Improve The Dream (@ImproveTheDream) June 20, 2021
And while they have a long way to go, their efforts are starting to yield results. Recently, dozens of lawmakers wrote a letter urging President Joe Biden to make Documented Dreamers eligible for DACA and to end aging out by freezing a child’s recorded age at the date their parent files for green cards. Congress also recently introduced a bipartisan bill that would protect dependents of long-term visa holders from aging out and grant them a work permit when they turn 16. The bill also includes a pathway for these dependents to apply for permanent residency themselves.
The neverending effort to align our institutions with our ideals can reveal perseverance and courage, traits that drive American history away from injustice. As one of the many people who had the privilege of meeting these young Americans—and I use that word advisedly—during their visit to the Capitol, I thank them for being part of our national history and for helping me to better understand my own country.