Sarvani Kunapareddy came to the U.S. when she was 3. Growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, she became involved in school, friends, basketball, track and field and other activities. But the high school freshman now realizes that her dreams could be short-lived, thanks to her immigration status.
“When I became aware of this issue, everything changed,” the Lake St. Louis resident told India Abroad. Uncertain of her future the only country she knows and calls home, Kunapareddy, 15, said she is worried what lies ahead: She is among an estimated 40,000 kids who came to this country on an H-4 visa — as dependents on their parents’ H-1B work visas. Now they’re at risk of aging out. When they turn 21 they lose their status, because their families’ green cards are stuck in the backlog.
While the H-4 visa has no limitations for spouses as long as the related H-1B is valid, children lose their H-4 visas once they turn 21.
Skilled Immigrants in America (SIIA) — a group comprising 150,000 workers who are also permanent-resident applicants — estimates that there are about 1.5 million highly-skilled immigrants currently in the green card backlog. Parents say they are sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as young children, but are discouraged by the dearth of legislative proposals to help dependent children of H-1B workers. Like their undocumented counterparts, these H-4 Dreamers have been raised in America from a young age and face an uncertain future. The parents say that when jobs got them to the U.S., settling down here was not something they had planned.
“Our plan to settle down in the U.S. was very gradual,” Kunapareddy’s mother, Krishnapriya Kunapareddy Chinna, told India Abroad. Kunapareddy Chinna came to the U.S. 12 years ago. Her daughter was her only child.
“Seeing Sarvani settle down and enjoy life here, made us comfortable with the idea of settling down here,” she said. When their daughter moved to middle school, the family changed homes for a better school district and eventually bought a house. “Now to see my daughter having to put her dreams on hold or change career paths because of her immigration status is very discouraging,” her mother said.
Parents and immigration lawyers believe the country’s broken immigration system has given these children an uncertain future. Many concerned families said they feel blindsided by the law, known as the Child Status Protection Act.
Like Kunpareddy Chinna, Anita Santhosh, a computer professional in Dublin, California, worries about her son Sree Kumar’s future. “We came to the U.S. on H-1B along with my kids who have grown up here as our dependents on H-4 visa status,” she told India Abroad in an earlier interview.
“And now suddenly we realize that my son is faced with a potential roadblock to college enrollment because they are going to age out soon and we are yet to get permanent residency.”
Rashi Bhatnagar, founder of the Facebook group “H4 Visa: A Curse,” agrees that the green card backlog has tremendous impact on H-4 children, many of whom came to the U.S. as toddlers. “With the unlimited number of extensions for H-1B holders once an I-140 application [petition for green card] is approved, these kids have spent their entire childhood in the U.S. but are still not considered permanent residents,” Bhatnagar said.
These children have only two choices: They can get their dependent visa changed to an international student visa, the F-1, so they can attend college — or they can go back to India and return to the U.S. after their parents get permanent residency. Legal experts believe that changing one’s status to an F-1 student visa may well be the only viable option. They also believe that once the children finish school while covered under the F-1 visa, they would need to seek out H-1B sponsors of their own so they can work in the U.S. and eventually get their own green cards.
However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Students with an F-1 visa have to pay double the regular in-state college tuition and are not eligible for federal grants, scholarships or even federal student loans. The financial burden without aid or loan is so much that many of the students like Kunapareddy, who had once dreamed of going to medical school, have now decided to study something that is more short-term and less expensive. She is currently exploring other options for college.
Sree Kumar also wanted to study medicine. “I didn’t know about this situation until recently when my parents told me about this,” he said. “For all the hard work that I have done, it does not look like I will eventually be able to make it to college, considering the wait period for green cards is reportedly several decades.”
Kunapareddy Chinna is worried that this might have a negative impact on her daughter. “She is aware of the issue, and has a support from her counselors and teachers at school,” she noted, but said the negatives like no Social Security Number, no federal scholarship unless change in immigration status and ineligibility to apply to a community college program for high-achieving students, could hinder growth, she feels.
Along with that there is a constant fear that her H-1B status or that of her husband might get disproved during the renewal every three years, she said.
Kunapareddy Chinna cites another problem: General lack of public awareness about H-4 Dreamers. Some parents and kids affected by the issue are also scared that speaking up against the current law may jeopardize their kids’ future, she said.
Along with her daughter, she says she’s doing her part in reaching out to senators and the community-at-large. “I have a lot of support from my teachers, counselors and friends, and they are helping me in spreading the word,” Kunapareddy said.
Neha Mahajan of Westfield, New Jersey, a dependent H-4 spouse with an employment authorization, or EAD, believes that the H-4 Dreamers were probably overlooked when advocates were working on solving the issue of spouses of H-1B visa holders.
There are more than 1 million such children and many of them will turn 21 before their parents can get their green cards, said Mahajan, whose older daughter is also on an H-4 dependant visa. An active campaigner for the rights of H-4 dependent spouses, Mahajan is also lending her voice to support the dependent kids. “There is a lot of noise right now about the Dream Act. Sadly, there is no awareness about H-4 Dreamers,” she said.
One of the main objectives of the H-4 Dreamers movement is to address the possible issue of deportation to India once the kids turn 21. Groups like GC Reforms and SIIA are bringing the children and their parents together by forming alliances and solidarities.
They have been organizing rallies, seminars and panel discussions to raise awareness. The kids are writing petitions and calling their members of Congress and other legislators so that they can obtain work permits after they have turned 21.
Pallavi Banerjee, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Calgary, and an expert in U.S. immigration issues, told Economic Times that aging out is creating a huge cognitive dissonance for H-4 dependent children. They have grown up in the U.S. as middle-class kids but as H-4 visa-holders they are denied all kinds of rights and experiences that American children have.
“And if and once they graduate in the U.S., unless they find employers willing to sponsor their H-1B visa, they have to return to India,” Banerjee said. But India is no longer home for these children, and they will have to go through the entire process of readjustment — which is why this option is ruled out by most children and parents.
“Sarvani left India at 2, and has no familiarity with the country,” Kunapareddy Chinna said. “For all practical purposes, she considers herself an American.”
The SIIA website is full of the images of handwritten letters from dependent youngsters urging changes in the age-out provisions of the law. There’s 6-year-old Jon Kalathil of Centerton, Arkansas, who aspires “to become an engineer and build huge buildings,” while Kodil Vegesna of Charlotte, North Carolina laments that a lot of his friends from high school and college, who are citizens, have been able to make use of all the opportunities “which I am unable to get hold of.”
Similar letters flood the website, where kids of all ages pour their hearts out, hoping for a miracle.
‘What Did we do Wrong?’
Parents ask: What did they do wrong? This question was evident at rallies held April 29 in Trenton, New Jersey and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Skilled immigrants and H-4 Dreamers and activists gathered to show support and solidarity for Indian high-skilled immigrants who are stuck in the green card backlog in the skills-based EB2 and EB3 categories.
Holding placards that read “Remove Per Country Limits for employment based green cards,” “300,000 waiting for 90 years,” “What did I do wrong,” “H4 EAD, We start Small businesses, create local jobs, Help grow local economy,” “Break the Green Card Backlog,” they demanded passage of legislation removing per-country limits in the employment-based categories to make the system fair.
H-4 Dreamers demanded that all kids in the current immigration discussion be treated equally.
Leela Pinnamaraju of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who spoke at the rally in her hometown, urged lawmakers to consider their plight. “Kids who came to the U.S. legally with their parents who work in U.S. companies should also have a pathway for citizenship,” she said.
Organizers said the rally is a clarion call to lawmakers to take action. Last October SIIA members met personally with at least 10 lawmakers from both parties, including Reps. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.). While they received verbal assurances, rally organizers told India Abroad that nothing concrete has come out of it.
Recently, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) issued a petition supported by the California-based immigration firm Shah Peerally Law Group PC, urging the government to extend the H-4 visa time for H-1B dependents children beyond 21 and to have them benefit from the application of adjustment of status through their parents under the Child Status Protection Act.
With so many developments in these directions, despite the roadblocks and the snail’s pace at which things are moving, Kunapareddy Chinna is hopeful that in six years —when her daughter turns 21 — things will would change for the better.