They immigrate to this country as children when they are as young as 5, and they spend much of their lives as de facto citizens. But when they reach 21, they lose their status and have to choose self-deportation or family separation.
More than 200,000 immigrants in the United States, most from India and China, fall into this category known as “Documented Dreamers.”
These immigrants, who are younger than other groups, enter the United States legally through one or both of their parents, who come here on work visas known as H1B visas.
The children are claimed as dependents and can exist as such until they turn 21. Then they age out of the visa.
That means they face three choices: Wait upward of 30 years to get an H1B visa of their own; return to the country of birth they have no connection with; or remain in the United States illegally and risk deportation and family separation.
Much like undocumented Dreamers, Documented Dreamers have no real path to citizenship.
But unlike their counterparts, they are not eligible for the Obama Administration program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, because of their previously lawful status.
Their only real shot at protection is the massive reconciliation bill, known as Build Back Better.
One of President Joe Biden’s signature efforts at social change, the bill also includes significant provisions for undocumented and documented immigrants in the country.
If passed, the bill would include work permits, protection from deportation and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented and documented immigrants as well as solutions for the backlogs in the system.
But key Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin said earlier this month that the bill is ‘dead,’ and millions of immigrants are now facing uncertainty as they are once again left without any real options.
[IRW is tracking the Biden administration’s changes to immigration policy.]
The faces of Documented Dreamers
Ashley, who requested that her middle name be used, is a 20-year-old Documented Dreamer living on the West Coast. She came to this country from the Philippines when she was only 6 months old.
Her father immigrated legally on an E2 visa, a business visa.
Ashley had just graduated from high school and was preparing for her first year of college when her father’s business was not approved for a March 2020 renewal because it was not profitable or not making enough money.
The denial meant her father lost his legal status — and so did his family.
Ashley had to apply to change from an E2 dependent to an F1 student visa.
She attempted to start this process in December 2019 because she knew her status would run out the following March. But with massive backlogs and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she did not hear back from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for almost a year.
By then, she had already lost her status. Immigration services told her she needed to submit documentation to show she was either enrolled in college or planned to do so as an international student.
She sent the paperwork but her lawyer did not inform her that she also had to apply for an extension because she was filing in December after not meeting the March deadline.
Because she did not file the extension, Ashley was denied the visa on Jan. 15, 2021, leaving her without status once again.
“They told me that I had to go home, basically. And at that time, it was just kind of scary…So I thought I might as well just stay here undocumented,” she said.
“I thought it was better to just stay undocumented here than to go home because there was really no home I knew. I was born in the Philippines, but I haven’t been there since I was a baby,” Ashley said.
Harishree Karthik is also a Documented Dreamer living on the West Coast. She came to the United Stateswhen she was 7 years old and has remained here ever since.
Her father came to the country on an H1B visa from India, and claimed her as his dependent.
But like Ashley, Karthik faces a bleak future. She has only one year left as a dependent because she is turning 21 soon.
She is currently on an F1 visa while doing graduate work, focusing on data science.
Her parents are about to get their green cards, after waiting years, but she was not included in their applications.
“Even though they get a green card, I basically have no real pathway even though I have stayed here for 16 years most of my life,” she said. “To the government, I moved here a year ago on a temporary student visa, and all my time before basically doesn’t count in terms of immigration offices.”
Her only options are to work for a couple of years after graduation during a period known as optional practical training or apply for a work visa that would most likely be the same H1B visa as her father.
Karthik said she is actively looking for internship opportunities to help her fill the gap during the OPT period. But it’s difficult even to get an interview.
She said each application asked if she would require future sponsorship. Not all countries accept international students, and she is competing against them for some positions
“Most international students, especially in technology, do their bachelor’s in their home country, work for three to four years, then do graduate school in the U.S. They have years of work experience in the technology field under their belt, while I don’t and didn’t have the opportunities to,” Karthik said.
She said the chance of getting another visa or a green card are low because of the long wait times caused by backlogs in the system in both the United States and other countries.
Her father was victim to the backlogs, waiting 15 years before getting the green card.
“The estimated time for me would be outrageous. Estimates show that it would be like over 150 years,” Kathik said, referring to a recent conversation with an immigration lawyer. “It depends on different countries. India and China have the biggest backlogs so that’s why the delay is there.”
She said the system has become a “lottery” every step of the way, adding that there are no guarantees anywhere.
Karthik, along with Sumana Kaluvai, Shiksha Sneha and Sarvani Kunapareddy, helped form a support organization known as the Hidden Dream.
The organization specializes in sharing stories and creating resources for the Documented Dreamers community. Kaluvai, Sneha, and Kunapareddy are all from India as well.
The Next Steps
As the fate of Build Back Better continues to play out, Documented Dreamers such as Harishree and Ashley remain upset.
Ashley said the bill’s intentions are a step in the right direction because there hasn’t been any concrete immigration legislation for the last eight years.
“I feel like a lot of people are not aware of how daunting it seems because you’re not sure if you’re going to be here in the next 10 years,” she said. “So I think this bill can give us hope. But without this bill, it just emphasizes that fear.”
Harishree is discouraged, too.
“I honestly have no hope at all,” she said. “Absolutely nothing has been done for immigration in this administration. This was said to be an open borders and very pro-immigrant administration. So it’s a very stark difference and it’s very different from what was said.”