CONTRIBUTORS

OP-ED: Patchwork visa policies hurt families

Rekha Basu
Des Moines Register (TNS)
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and President Joe Biden meet with Cabinet members and immigration advisers in the State Dining Room of the White House on March 24, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

As a ticket to adulthood, a 21st birthday should be an occasion to celebrate newfound freedoms and a world of other opportunities. But in Iowa City, Iowa, the approach of Pareen Mhatre’s 21st last month plunged her and her parents into low-grade panic.

"We were dreading her 21st birthday, to be honest," said her mother, Sampada Mhatre. As Pareen, a University of Iowa junior would tell the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship in heart-rending testimony April 29, it leaves her subject to self-deportation to India. And that's despite the fact that she has lived in America, legally, for all but the first four months of her life

Pareen is what's known as a "Documented Dreamer." They share with undocumented Dreamers the fact that they were brought to the U.S. at an early age — 4 months, in her case — by foreign-born parents. But Pareen's parents always had visas, first as students at the University of Iowa, and later as professional employees on H-1B visas for high-skilled workers for whom there is a need. Until age 21, Pareen was covered by an H-4 visa as their dependent. "At 21 you age out of the system," she explained.

That's where her situation differs from those eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections. Documented Dreamers aren't covered by them. And that seems a glaring omission for the 200,000 of them at risk of having to leave the only home they've known.

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Sampada Mhatre has master’s degrees in German, educational psychology, and business administration, and works as an instructional services manager at the UI College of Nursing. Her husband, Girish, has a master’s in computer science and is a senior applications developer for UI Hospitals.

Backlog: Pareen is majoring in biomedical engineering and ultimately wants to create medical devices and equipment. Though UI is one of her state schools, she had to apply for admission as an international student because she lacks official in-state status. Still, things were working as they was supposed. Before the parents' H-1Bs, which last six years, were to expire, the University of Iowa as their employer filed for green cards for them. Those give foreign nationals the right to live and work permanently in the U.S., and to sponsor immediate family members.

That was nine years ago. But they've hit what is believed to be a 50-year backlog. And until they get their green cards, her parents can't sponsor Pareen. So until her student visa comes through, she'll be unable to take classes after this semester ends. At 21 she also lost her authorization to drive.

Pareen applied nine months ago for an F-1 student visa as well as what's called a B-2 "bridge" visa for visitors. The latter doesn't authorize studying or working but would keep her here until her student visa comes. And, she told the senators, "Children who were raised in the United States on long-term visas like me are often denied a student visa because they are unable to show ties to their country of birth."

The worst-case scenario? "My visas don't come in time and I have to self-deport to India," she told me. And that's unimaginable for her and her family. They'd be separated and she'd have to "abandon my life and education here to start my life over in India, a country I do not know and have not lived in," she said. "It would be so hard for me and my family; I don't think I would ever recover from that."

Dip Patel, a clinical pharmacist in the Chicago area, is founder and president of ImprovetheDream.org, of which Pareen is a member. It's made up of young people in the same situation who are pressing federal lawmakers for the same protections and path to citizenship as those who are DACA-eligible..

"This is an urgent issue affecting both immigrant lives and our country," wrote Patel in testimony submitted to the Judiciary subcommittee. "Current immigration laws prevent high-skilled immigrants, small-business owners, and their children from achieving the American Dream, even though these documented immigrants have spent decades contributing to the United States. These obstacles are not just tearing families apart, but also negatively impacting the United States economy."

Even worse off than the children of H-1B visa holders are those whose parents came from abroad on E-2 visas for small-business owners. Their children have no pathway to citizenship and must leave at age 21.

Reform efforts: This makes no sense at any level. If the U.S. is granting visas to people whose services it needs, it can't simply abandon the families they create in the process. Not to mention that evidence shows many of the Dreamers are high-performers and STEM graduates with big earnings potential who could contribute well to the U.S. economy. Yet at least 10,000 Documented Dreamers are ordered to self-deport every year, Patel said. He is pressing for them to be part of any immigration reform efforts by Congress. Other possible solutions including executive action are spelled out on his website.

"Having lived in this country for most of my life, I feel American in every way, " Pareen Mhatre told the subcommittee. "I learned how to speak and read in Iowa City. I learned how to ride a bike about a mile from my current home. I have attended kindergarten through high school in the Iowa City Community School District, and now I am in my third year of college at University of Iowa. My roots are here in Iowa."

She has volunteered for the Iowa City Public Library, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and the city. She represented Iowa City West High at national and state-level competitions in engineering, math and science, robotics, and Science Olympiad, and has won individual and team awards. She was the online managing editor and the photo editor for the school newspaper, and a member of the student senate for three years. As a school senior she was selected to be on West High's principal’s advisory committee.

But her mother, Sampada, has watched her daughter recently suffer from heavy stress over her future, sometimes calling home from her apartment crying, and once having a panic attack.

"We did everything right," Sampada said, "and yet here we are."

Maybe Congress and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service never fully thought through the implications of these patchwork visa policies and the untenable situation they put offspring in. But now that many of these children are becoming adults, it's time to focus on fixing it, and fast.

To learn more about Documented Dreamers and find out how to support them by writing letters to your senators, go to improvethedream.org.

— Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.