Thousands of immigrants are forced to self-deport from the United States after many years of living in the country: what is happening
Lawrence Van Beek left his parents' home in Iowa City on July 5 with three suitcases full of clothes and electronics to board his first international flight in 17 years. He doesn't know when he'll be back Yahoo.
Van Beek grew up in Iowa but was born in the Netherlands. His parents, who own a small jewelry store, have renewable work visas. But when he turned 21, just before his senior year at the University of Iowa, he was no longer considered a dependent.
Now 24-year-old Van Beek, a software developer working in the field of DNA synthesis, has received an international student visa and extended it for three years of graduate study. But when that came to an end, so did his ability to legally remain in the US. He returned to the Netherlands.
“Everything we have done since we came to the US in 2005 has always followed the rules,” he said. “I definitely didn’t think it would be all that difficult.”
More than 250 U.S. dependent visa holders are at risk of leaving the country they grew up in after they "age" and are not eligible for legal status on their parents' visas. Thousands of people have already grown up and were able to stay on temporary visas or left the country voluntarily.
Now, after years of propaganda, the so-called documented dreamers (the beneficiaries of the DACA program, which protects against deportation of illegal immigrants brought to the US by children) have caught the attention of Congress. Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Rep. Deborah K. Ross (DC.C.) introduced the Children of America Act, which establishes safeguards to prevent US-raised children from being deported and provides them with a path to citizenship.
The documented dreamers are among the few immigrant groups that have received support from both Republicans and Democrats at a time when immigration policy has become so divisive that almost any attempt at reform is unlikely to succeed.
There has long been support for a broader range of immigrants brought to the US as children, including those protected by the Obama-era Delayed Action Program for Incoming Children, or DACA.
Ross pointed to recent advocacy from business leaders that she said has accelerated the call for change. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security last month, tech giants including Amazon, Google and Twitter said immigrants are key to solving a severe labor shortage and urged politicians to help registered dreamers stay in the US.
The need to retain people trained and educated in the US, combined with unity among different immigrant groups, could be the key to reform, Ross said. Her bill is likely to pass the House of Representatives, but it faces a tougher fight in the Senate, where immigration legislation lacks public support from enough lawmakers to reach the 60-vote threshold for passage. “I am cautiously optimistic that he will be included in the Senate package,” she said.
Many work visas can be extended, but they do not allow citizenship. Among those who can apply for permanent residence - usually through sponsorship by a family member or employer - the queues have become extremely long for people from India, China and elsewhere. This is because the US limits the number of green cards issued each year to people from any country. Indian citizens with professional degrees holding certain work visas face a lifelong wait.
Supporters say the deportation primarily affects the children of Indian visa holders. An estimate based on federal data shows that they make up the majority of pending children's green cards. The largest proportion lives in California.
Reet Mishra, a future UC Berkeley high school student, was born in India and moved to Sunnyvale with her parents and younger sister at the age of 8.
When Mishra's family applied for a green card, their "priority date" - the date the federal government received the application - was July 2014. Each month they checked the State Department website to see if they were at the top of the line.
Even before Mishra turned 21 in February, the website showed that green cards were available for people with priority dates prior to January 2014. Then the sheer volume of applications caused a congestion and the federal government moved the queue back to serve people with January 2014 priority dates.
Mishra no longer meets the requirements to become a permanent resident of the United States, according to her parents. She switched to a student visa to continue her studies in bioengineering, electrical engineering and computer science. She plans to get her PhD and dreams of working in medical diagnostics.
But the day in April when Mishra received her new visa was bittersweet.
“I was overjoyed that I could at least stay here longer,” she said. “But it was a little sad, because it kind of put a nail in the coffin that my future is on an uncertain path.”
Deep Patel was also born in India. At the age of 4, he and his parents moved to Canada, where they became citizens. A few years later, the family moved to the US, where his parents opened a shop in Illinois on an E-2 work visa, which is available to immigrants from 81 treaty countries, including Canada. He is now 26 years old and works as a pharmacist in a rural healthcare system in Illinois on a work visa for Canadian professionals.
For the past five years, Patel has spent his free time trying to help people who have grown up in similar situations. Frustrated that no one seemed to understand the difficulties he faced in the visa process, he researched how to protect himself and others.
He called congressional offices and attended events that members were supposed to attend. He taught advocacy organizations for immigrants with growing up problems.
The deputies initially had no answers to his questions. One said he was focused on helping DACA recipients and couldn't help Patel.
“I tried to explain to him that we are all in the same boat,” Patel said, recalling that conversation. "I'm trying to show that there are broken parts in the system, and you guys fix them, but ignore the obvious flaws."
Patel founded an official group to support and protect documented dreamers, calling it Improve the Dream. He was surprised by the reaction - thousands of young people who are on the verge of growing up or have already passed the acceptable age write about their problems.
In 2019, Patel fought for documented protection for dreamers in the Dreamers Act, which would pave the way to citizenship for people smuggled into the US as children. But House Democrats voted against an amendment that would allow the children of some work visa holders to apply for green cards.
The Dreamers Act 2021 does include documented dreamers. But Patel notes that this will not eliminate the root cause of the deportations. According to the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, DC, at least 104 young people will lose their visas over the next two decades.
“This is a one-time solution,” Patel said. “Without a solution to the problem, there will be more people who will either remain undocumented or will be forced to leave.”
In high school, Patel considered himself a "dreamer," a term used to describe immigrants who would have benefited from legalization measures under the failed Dreamers Act, which was five votes short of passing the Senate in 2010. When DACA was announced by President Obama in 2012, the program's original memorandum did not state that people did not need to have legal immigration status to qualify.
“When people talk about comprehensive immigration reform, the rhetoric is about just getting in line,” Patel said. “The truth is, there is no queue. We are a perfect example of this, "Well, show us exactly what we had to do."
Patel worked with David Beer, Associate Director of Immigration Research at the CATO Institute, to lay the groundwork for what would become the Children of America Act. Since the introduction of the bill, Patel and other members of Dream Improvement have made several trips to Washington.
One of the trips was to the March hearings in the Senate on removing barriers to legal migration. Atulya Rajakumar, a 23-year-old Indian-born Dallas resident, testified emotionally about her brother's death by suicide after the uncertainty of his immigration status contributed to serious mental health issues. Now Rajakumar must leave her mother alone in the US when her visa expires at the end of this year.
The Senate bill has received some bipartisan support over the past few months, with five Republican co-sponsors.
Beer has advocated for young people who have run out of visas since the Obama presidency. After the possibility of a comprehensive immigration reform was ruled out and the talk turned to helping dreamers, Beer said he pointed out to Congressional leaders that legislation at the time excluded those who grow up without a visa.
“This is one of the many problems in the immigration space where Congress just didn’t have a vision for a future where the backlog is incredible,” he said.
Political analysts have been encouraged by the recent passage of a bipartisan gun law in Congress. Teresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration policy at the Center for Bipartisan Policy, said she was unsure if such a momentum would lead to a break from the political impasse in immigration.
Brown said it's unlikely that a decision for documented dreamers will come on its own unless Congress simultaneously resolves other issues, including DACA, border control, asylum and STEM.
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But Brown said the urgency of the situation for DACA recipients could spark some movement on immigration reform. DACA hangs in the balance — Wednesday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is due to hear oral arguments in a case that will decide whether such an extensive program is legal.
Van Beek, a software developer from Iowa, said he and his parents didn't initially realize that their work visas were preventing them from obtaining citizenship. He started paying more attention to his immigration status when he turned 21.
Twice he tried to apply for an H-1B visa for people with special occupations. But the program is competitive — this fiscal year, 484 people signed up to apply for just 000 visas.
Van Beek is looking forward to spending time with the extended family he has only seen via video call. Dutch citizenship allows him to live in Belgium, where his company has an office.
The company is now trying to get him an EB-3 skilled worker visa. In the meantime, he may visit his parents from time to time, but does not know if he can return permanently.
Van Beek is frustrated at how impenetrable the immigration system can be. But he was also encouraged by the support of his company and friends, who urged their representatives to advocate for immigration reform.
“It's not just about border policy,” he said. “It’s also about the people: kids and young people like me who grew up here from a young age are essentially Americans in every way but a piece of paper.”
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