Pareen Mhatre was 4 months old when she came to the U.S. from India under her mom’s student visa. Since before she could crawl, Iowa City has been her home.
But as her 21st birthday approached, anxiety began to set in. She was about to “age out.” Under the rules of her H4 visa — which she got after her parents graduated and started working — she was only a dependent until 21. After that, she’d have to find another way to stay in the only country she’s ever known. Failing to do so would mean that what should be a happy milestone could lead to deportation.
“My immigration status has been a conductor of my life,” Mhatre told NBC Asian America. “I lived in India for four months when I was a baby. And the thought of going back is very scary for me. This is our home.”
Mhatre is among about 190,000 kids and young adults in the U.S. today for whom aging out of their families’ visas is a real concern, according to the Migration Policy Institute. There’s no clear path to citizenship and no easy route to staying, other than jumping from temporary visa to visa as their peers with permanent residency or citizenship carry on with school, work and life. Over the last few years, a coalition of 300 of these young people, 70 percent South Asian, are appealing to lawmakers to create a clear path to citizenship.
Last week, representatives from the advocacy organization Improve the Dream met with senior Biden administration officials and several members of Congress to push for executive action, new legislation and an amendment to the DREAM Act to include them. (The DREAM Act only applies to children who are undocumented.) Last week, Reps. Deborah Ross of North Carolina and Ami Bera of California, both Democrats, wrote a letter urging Biden to protect children of visa holders seeking to stay in the country.
“It’s a very simple vision that every child who grows up in the United States should have a path to citizenship,” said Dip Patel, 25, founder of Improve the Dream. “Children of long-term visa holders who grew up here and complete their education here don't have a path to stay after aging out and face self deportation.”
One reason for the increased pressure on this issue right now is the coming of age of the children who arrived with their parents from India in the 1980s and ’90s. This swell of immigration came as non-European migrants began to take jobs in the U.S. and move with their families under the 1965 Immigration Act, said Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications at the Migration Policy Institute. From 1980 to 2019, the population of Indians in the United States grew 13-fold.
In school at the University of Iowa on the pre-med track, Mhatre applied for a student visa in June 2020. She submitted the application well in advance, and expected it to arrive by her 21st birthday in April. It didn’t. In limbo, a now-21-year-old Mhatre was forced to get a B2 visitor’s visa to avoid deportation. Her F1 student visa finally arrived only a couple of weeks ago.
The realities of her status also forced her to abandon her dream of being a pediatrician (only a few U.S. medical schools accept a small number of international students). It was a hopeless time in her life, she said.
“I felt like I had no purpose,” she said. “I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.”
As a kid, she wasn’t fully conscious of how her status differed from her peers, but all at once, it was hitting her. She had to follow the path of least resistance and find a field where she was more likely to get a job and a visa. Even though she’s found a new path for her degree, her immigration status means she’s never had an internship or work experience.
She knows she’ll have a college degree in under a year, but the concept of failing to get a job and having to return to India is still a worry. And in order to stay for now, visa kids like Patel and Mhatre have to prove they don’t intend to stay forever. To qualify for several types of temporary visas, applicants have to show proof of ties to their “home” country and say they don’t plan to pursue permanent residency in the U.S.
“We've lived here all of our lives,” Patel said. “It’s really hard to prove nonimmigrant intent, which is something that's required for student visas and a lot of other temporary statuses as well.”
After years of phone calls and visits to lawmakers, they say a new bill provides a bit of hope. It will be introduced by Ross on Thursday and would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act “to authorize lawful permanent resident status for certain college graduates who entered the United States as children, and for other purposes.”
“For me personally, it’s really exciting,” Patel said. “I’ve had something that’s never made sense growing up. It’s an idea that I’ve always had: Why don’t they just create this? It’s great to see.”