Most American teenagers look forward to turning 21, but I dread it. I am American in every way except on paper and turning 21 means that I will age-out of the system and have to fight to stay in this country, a country that has become home to me.
My name is Lakshmi Parvathinathan and I am a Documented Dreamer. I have been living in the U.S. for nearly fourteen years now but my future here is not guaranteed. I may be forced to self-deport in two years.
I was born in Tamil Nadu, India and my parents brought me to Dallas, Texas when I was just three years old. I didn’t know it at the time, but Dallas would be home only for the next five years — how long our L1B visas would be valid. I grew up 25 minutes away from the Cowboys Stadium and I cherished the sweltering summers and merciful winters that came with Texas. I went to school in Dallas from pre-k to third grade, but three months into third grade I was torn away from everything I ever knew. Our L1A visa extension got denied. I had a week to tell my friends and teachers that I was moving halfway across the world to a country that I didn’t remember.
For the next two years in India, I somehow managed to feel like a foreigner in the very country I was born in. During my first six months there, I spent hours after school every day with a tutor learning how to read and write Tamil, a language with 247 characters, just to pass the third grade. At school, I faked an Indian accent and smiled awkwardly when my friends praised me for my “perfect” English. While adjusting to life in India was hard, it was much harder to live 10 hours away from my dad. His new job put him in a city far from my mom and I, only allowing for visits every other month. Seeing all the other kids come to the bus stop with their dads in the morning made me long for mine.
When fifth grade rolled around, so did my chance to come back to America. This time, home was the suburbs of Philadelphia. Now that I was older, my parents decided to be transparent about our visa status. When I started middle school, they warned me that our L1B visa would only allow us to stay for five years, which meant that I might have to move back to India again during high school. But they told me there was a chance that we could stay longer if we won a lottery: the H1B lottery. I didn’t understand why our fate came down to luck.
On top of angsty tween drama, my middle school experience was plagued with constant uncertainty. The odds were not in our favor the first time we applied — we were met with a rejection. Our second application resulted in the same fate. The fear of being forced to leave this country again began to petrify me and I started losing hope about my future in America. Facing rejection repeatedly was enervating, but my parents refused to relent and tried again. As a final attempt, we applied one more time. This time, the odds were in our favor and we won the H1B lottery when I was in the ninth grade. I thought this meant that my future in this country was secured. I thought this meant that my family would finally have some peace and stability. I could not have been more wrong.
By the next year, my parents slowly began to tell me what being on a H4 dependent visa actually meant. I learned about all the disheartening limitations that came with my status: I don’t qualify for federal aid, in-state tuition, or most scholarships, I don’t have work authorization, and I can’t easily pursue a career in healthcare. Finding out that I would be considered an international student when applying to colleges and medical schools completely invalidated the past decade and a half of my life. Similarly, finding out that I can’t do internships or have simple jobs not only made me worry about my professional goals but also about the unaffordability of hefty international student tuition. Worst of all, I found out that I might face self-deportation when I turn 21. Self-deportation proved to be such a frightening concept to a teenage girl who only wanted stability for once in her life. I learned that the only way I could potentially avoid self-deportation was by switching to a student visa, getting lucky enough to be sponsored by an employer, win the H1b lottery, and start the entire employment-based green card process on my own. Additionally, even switching to a student visa, which most Documented Dreamers would attempt at age 21, is difficult because of the requirement to show “nonimmigrant intent” and ties to our country of birth. My enthusiasm for my future quickly turned into fear and despondent thoughts consumed me, causing me to constantly feel powerless. I used to think that if I worked hard, I could be anything I want to be, but I started to question that. The American Dream that I had spent all these years in school learning about seemed like a lie.
Growing up in a community with few immigrants, the lack of a solid support system made me feel incredibly alienated. No one I knew could understand what I was going through and I couldn’t bring myself to openly talk about my situation because I felt emotionally drained. I just wanted to be able to excitedly talk about college and the future the same way my peers could, but that seemed like too much to ask for. However, through it all, my parents have been my biggest supporters. They have sacrificed so much for me, and have missed so many weddings, funerals, and births over the past fourteen years just so I could have the best opportunity to fulfill my dreams. They’re both first-generation immigrants who have gone years at a time without seeing their families, and I am eternally grateful for all they do. Their unwavering optimism about my future is why I refuse to let my status define me and it is the reason I have not given up yet.
I am now almost 19 and a Biological Sciences major at Drexel University, still working to chase my dream of entering the medical field. Time seems to be moving very slow but also very fast. Every long day that passes where no administrative action is taken to protect Documented Dreamers, I become one day closer to aging out of the system. I recently joined Improve The Dream, and for the first time ever, I feel like there is finally light at the end of the tunnel for Dreamers like me. Five years ago, I never would have thought that such a movement could exist. Since joining Improve The Dream, I have been actively working alongside other Documented Dreamers to ensure that no child has to face self-deportation ever again. Our experiences have been overlooked and our voices have gone unheard for far too long now. We are Dreamers too, and we just want to be given a real chance to chase our 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.