Life of a Perpetual Foreigner: What is My Identity? Where is My Home?
I am a Documented Dreamer. The hardships of being forgotten by the immigration system are difficult to put into words and immediately bring tears to my eyes. Feelings of betrayal and loneliness rush as I start to think about my story.
I had a typical American upbringing. In the beginning, my family of four lived in a one-bedroom apartment while my father completed his PhD. I have vivid memories of my mother, twin sister, and I strolling hand-in-hand through the busy streets of San Francisco. With relentless perseverance, my father completed his PhD in record time and provided us with economic mobility. I later grew up juggling tennis and dance lessons with schoolwork and volunteering. On the weekends, we would buckle our helmets and bike to the closest park. We took road trips to the redwoods or coastline every chance we got. Simply put, my entire childhood is filled with memories of places and people that only exist in the United States.
My identity as an American was stripped from me when I was 18. While applying for colleges, I learned about what my parents’ pending green card application meant for me. Unlike my American peers, I was not able to accept financial aid, work the jobs I was offered, and pursue financial freedom via building credit. Nevertheless, I focused my hard work on completing my degree in bioengineering, volunteering in biomedical research labs, and leading national-level student organizations. My hard work did pay off — I was recognized for several awards, from UC San Diego and Genentech, for my commitment to the undergraduate and scientific communities. I still pushed through the obstacles to pursue my version of the American Dream.
The obstacles became overbearing when even the opportunity to achieve the American Dream became a privilege for me. 10 months before I turned 21, I learned I would have to self-deport with an incomplete degree. Were all of my achievements futile? How do I leave the only place I call home? These thoughts consumed my mind for the next 6 months as I sacrificed my academic and leadership responsibilities to fight for a way to remain in this country. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders when I received my change-of-status approval. I switched to an F-1 international student visa, the same status my father arrived with 13 years earlier.
Living as an international student has greatly impacted my career trajectory. I am eager to start my career in the pharmaceutical industry so I can solve technical challenges in drug development. Although I had more prestigious internships and laboratory experiences than my American peers, I was not able to find any biotechnology companies that were willing to sponsor me, let alone let me work on an OPT. I decided to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering to improve my chances of future sponsorship and continue my legal status without acquiring more student loan debt. Unsurprisingly, I continued to face underserved discrimination as PhD programs also saw my international student status as a burden.
Today, I am awaiting the next stage of barriers that will arrive when I complete my PhD. The next few years are a sigh of relief, as my temporary student status is the most certainty I have had in my adult years. Like my father, I am completing my PhD in record time and am on track to graduate with honors. I have a plan A, B, C, and D for what happens after my PhD, because I know stability is a privilege that I cannot acquire for a while.
Despite being forgotten by the American government, I still identify as an American. Because of the possibility of getting “stuck” if I visit my country of birth, my entire life has been in America since my family immigrated 17 years ago. Last year, I felt like a foreigner when I visited my country of birth for the first time since I was 10 (I am 25 now). My mind is always at a crossroads because I am considered a foreigner in the country I call home, and I feel like a foreigner in the country that is my “home” on paper. I have accepted this feeling as an inevitable part of pursuing my American Dream as I see no straightforward path to American citizenship.
I aged-out of the system, but I don’t want this trend to continue. I am one of over 200,000 Documented Dreamers in the same boat. Unfortunately, the root cause of the issue — the long wait-times for employment-based green cards and per-county limits — is only getting worse. My parents are still “waiting in the line,” and it’s been 5 years since I was kicked out of this so-called line. I strongly urge that the United States government take the necessary steps to decrease green card wait-times and end aging-out once and for all.
There are multiple ways to tackle these issues. First, the America’s CHILDREN Act (H.R. 4331) aims to end aging-out for Documented Dreamers. Some of the provisions include providing them with a path to citizenship upon completing a college degree and establishing residence for more than 10 years. Second, the EAGLE Act calls to eliminate country caps — the main cause of the backlog in green-card applications among Indian nationals. While this piece of legislation will not help those Documented Dreamers who have already aged-out of the system and those who are on other nonimmigrant visas such as E-2, the passing of this legislation will ease the bottleneck effect caused by country-caps. Lastly, I urge Congress to include Documented Dreamers in the upcoming budget reconciliation bill. Anyone who was brought to the United States as a child dependent deserves a chance to fulfill their American Dream.
Improve The Dream is a youth-led advocacy organization bringing awareness for over 200,000 children of long-term visa holders who face self-deportation, despite growing up in the United States with a documented status.
If you know someone who is a Documented Dreamer, please share the following link so they can join our advocacy community to stay updated and connect with other Documented Dreamers: ImproveTheDream.org/survey.