I am a Documented Dreamer and this is my story - Adhithya Rajasekaran
First, I want to convey my sincere gratitude to the people of this beautiful country for providing me and my family with safe refuge and incredible opportunities. The United States has always been a country of immigrants. But the immigration system has unfortunately not kept up with the times and needs serious reform. One immigration issue that is close to my heart is the struggles of Documented Dreamers in this country. I am one of them and this is my story.
I was born in Chennai, India. I come from a poor family of priests. We sustained our day-to-day lives from the donations devotees offered to the temple. My mom grew up in abject poverty. But she had enormous willpower and perseverance. She taught herself English by reading old English newspapers, studied day and night and was able to get admission to a top college. She went on to get two PhDs (one in chemistry and one in education) and she is one of the smartest people that I have ever known in my life. She has been a science educator for more than 30 years. She has several peer-reviewed publications and has helped lots of women get PhDs as a guide.
In 2004, my mom was recruited to come and teach in the United States. She eventually got a permanent teaching job in 2007 and got an H1B visa. She brought my sister and I to the US on H4 dependent children visas. That is how I came to the US. Our family eventually settled in Covington, Georgia where my sister and I enrolled in school.
When I came to the US, I did not speak English well. English is my third language. So, I was placed in the ESOL program. I did even know the words “visa”, “immigration”, “H1B”, “green card” or any of the other terms that I use in this testimony. With the help of amazing teachers and exceedingly kind and empathetic American friends, I was eventually able to speak English fluently and I eventually went on to study and pass the AP British Literature exam and get college credit for it. I was a good student. I took AP classes. I was eventually inducted into the National Honors Society. Service to others was always emphasized to me even as a little child. So, I joined the Beta club and volunteered every weekend. I was also part of the team that won the Georgia Academic Bowl Championship in 2011. The Georgia state legislature decided to honor our team by passing a resolution and I have a signed copy from the governor, and it is one of my proudest possessions.
My mom’s employer sponsored her for permanent residence in 2010 under the employment-based immigration system. But because my mom had the misfortune of being born in India, she was subject to the per country cap of 7% and was unable to receive permanent residency. She has been stuck in the backlog ever since. We have family friends who were born in countries other than India. Many of them came to the US around the same time as my mom or later and almost all of them are US citizens and they have voted in at least two if not three presidential elections. But my mom has been unable to even receive her green card.
The first time I learnt that I was not like my American friends was when I went to get my learner’s permit. My American friend was getting his and his mom took me with him. My application was denied, and I was told that I had to produce additional documents because I was an “alien”. I eventually came to know that my stay in this country was limited, and I could not do a lot of things that my American friends could do like take summer jobs.
I graduated in the top 10 of my graduating class. I have been dreaming of becoming an engineer ever since I was a little kid. Georgia Tech was my top choice as it was one of the best engineering schools in the entire country and it was in my backyard. They also offered automatic admission to students who graduate in the top 10 from any Georgia school. But I soon realized I would not be able to afford Georgia Tech because of my immigration status.
Even though I was a resident of the state of Georgia, I had a driver’s license issued by the state, I had graduated from a Georgia high school and my mom worked for a public educational institution in Georgia, I was still classified as an out of state student. This meant that I had to pay out of state tuition, which was closer to $50,000 for a single year. Putting one kid through college is already hard enough for most American families. Putting two kids through college and paying out of state tuition was not possible for my family. I distinctly remember sitting outside of the Georgia Tech registrar’s office crying and not knowing what to do next.
My helpful high school counselor told me to fill out the FAFSA form because she had seen other children from poor families get money from the federal government. But because of my immigration status, I did not qualify for any federal student aid like Pell grants or student loans. I went to apply for a private student loan from a bank. The bank asked for my social security number (SSN) and I had none because H4 children are not work authorized in the US and are not provided with SSNs. I also didn’t qualify for any state scholarships like the merit-based Hope or Zell Miller scholarship that the state of Georgia provided to students because of my immigration status.
A close friend of mine who knew my struggles was enlisting in the US army. He put me in touch with a recruiter for the US army. The US army had a shortage of translators for certain languages, and they had a shortage of translators who can translate Tamil, my native language. The recruiter mentioned that if I joined the US army as a translator, I could receive US citizenship and receive the GI bill to pay for college through the MAVNI program. I wanted to join. But due to a pre-existing medical condition, I eventually received a permanent disqualifier from ever enlisting in US military service.
Eventually, I decided to go to a community college called Georgia Perimeter College (now part of Georgia State University). My mom scrapped every bit of money she had to provide for my community college tuition. They did not have an engineering program at that time. So, I decided to study Mathematics. I continued my volunteer work every weekend. I was inducted into the honors program, rose to the leadership of several different clubs, and led delegations to Washington D.C on a wide variety of issues. I ran for the student government and became the vice president. I graduated in 2013 with an A.A degree in Mathematics with honors. I wanted to transfer back to Georgia Tech to get my engineering degree. But I still did not have money to pay for out-of-state tuition.
While I was at Georgia Perimeter College, the Obama administration came out with the DACA program. I am in full support of the DACA program. I have friends in the DACA community, and I personally know how much the program has transformed their lives. I am very thankful that the administration came out with the DACA program. But the administration included a requirement that individuals should have “no lawful status on June 15, 2012” to qualify. Since my mom renewed my visa and kept my lawful status on that date, I and others in my situation did not qualify. This meant that we did not have any protections from deportation like those in the DACA program had.
In April 2013, my life changed forever. A private foundation in Washington D.C named the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation named me as a scholar. They told me that I can go study whatever I want in whichever college I want, and they would cover the cost. With the financial backing of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, I was finally able to get to Georgia Tech. I thought I had conquered all the problems. But little did I know that my troubles because of my status were just beginning.
Since scholarships are considered taxable, Georgia Tech reported my “income” to the IRS. But I couldn’t file taxes on my own as I didn’t have a SSN. So, I was forced to add all my “income” to my mom’s income and file taxes through her. This resulted in her income doubling immediately and resulting in huge tax bills for her.
Georgia Tech is a world class research university. I wanted to get involved in research. But since I had no work authorization, I could not work as a research assistant. Georgia Tech also had a startup incubator where students can join and start companies. I wanted to start my own company based on a research project that I had done for a class. But I could not do it.
In early 2015, my mom was in a bad car accident. She injured her neck and spinal cord and was in a serious condition. Doctors were asking who her next of kin is and who can make medical decisions about her life. That is when I came to the realization that my status in this country was tied to my mom and if something happened to her, I would not only be losing my mom, but I would also be deported out of this country and lose everything that I have worked hard for all this time. My mom is a fighter. She eventually recovered. But she is unable to drive today.
H4 visas cannot be extended past age 21. But I did not have enough credits to graduate before I turned 21. So, I started exploring other options. F1 (student visa) was the only option that allowed me to study. But F1 visas have a requirement that the applicant must have a residence abroad that he/she has no intention of abandoning. Since my entire family had moved to the US and my mom had a permanent job in the US, we had no residence abroad. I talked to immigration lawyers, and they told me that I do not qualify for F1. But I wanted to study. So, I self-filed my F1 application as no immigration lawyers were willing to take my case that they knew was going to end up in denial. I did not hear back from USCIS for months. I was super fortunate. My application was eventually approved. But many others are not that fortunate, and they must self-deport themselves out of this country.
I graduated from Georgia Tech in December 2015 with a B.S in Electrical Engineering with highest honors. My mom had two PhDs. I wanted to get at least one PhD. I was immediately admitted to graduate school at Georgia Tech and the Jack Kent Cooke foundation once again offered me their full financial support until I got my PhD. But my mom’s health was in decline. So, I decided to put my PhD dreams on hold, and I finished my M.S in Electrical and Computer Engineering in one semester and I graduated in May 2016.
Microsoft recruited me out of Georgia Tech, and I moved to Washington state to work for them. I have been working at Microsoft for the last four years. I currently work as a Software Engineer on the Word team and my areas of expertise are performance and accessibility. Microsoft applied for an H1B visa, and I am on that right now. I lost my pathway to citizenship when I turned 21. I was kicked out of my mom’s permanent residency application.
I was extremely fortunate. There were so many people who provided me with their time and other resources to help me on my journey. I am incredibly grateful to them. I also know that I was super lucky to have an opportunity to study computer science and engineering. But I am acutely aware that lots of children (especially in rural communities) in this country do not have that opportunity. So, I have been a volunteer high school computer science teacher for the last three years through the TEALS program. I have been teaching at Mabton High School in Mabton, WA. It has been one of the most fulfilling things that I have done in my life. My family and I also started a scholarship program at Georgia State University to provide a scholarship that has no immigration status requirements. The Rajasekaran family scholarship will start providing scholarships starting in Fall 2021.
My sincere hope is that distinguished members of this committee can come together in a bipartisan way to provide a pathway to citizenship for all children who grew up here and call America home. I also hope that this committee can find bipartisan solutions for other immigration issues that plague the employment based immigration system. Thanks for taking the time to read my story and thanks for the opportunity to share it.