The Journey Through a Documented Dreamer’s College Career

Niranjana Save

While we welcome everyone to read this, this post is intended for those who are unfamiliar with the U.S. immigration system, its laws, and how it affects the group commonly known as “Documented Dreamers.”

As a generation, we can all agree that college is an experience best summed up as a whirlpool of emotions. As a freshman, the apprehension of setting on your own quest into the real world is often accompanied by the excitement of new opportunities and possibilities. As a senior in high school, the anxiety of figuring out your next move comes with the satisfaction of watching your hard work pay off. For some (Documented Dreamers to be specific) however, college comes with additional coursework — Legal Immigration 101.

As we already know, the United States has one of the most complex immigration systems in the world. Navigating college as a Documented Dreamer is just one chapter out of the textbook. The average Documented Dreamer is brought to the United States as a child dependent at the age of 5. So long as their parents maintain their status as a primary long-term visa holders, these children are eligible to apply and maintain their own status as child dependents. That is, until they reach the age of 21.

This milestone birthday, for most people who pursue higher education, falls smack in the middle of some of the most crucial years of their college careers. For Documented Dreamers, it also means the start of a journey dictated by luck and uncertainty—two factors that are completely out of their control.

The start of freshman year is probably the smoothest part of this process. For most, aging out at 21 is still an intangible idea that is nearly two years away. There is not much that can be done on that front except for gathering information and keeping up with immigration experts. Limitations come in the form of jobs and internships. Since children on dependent visas are not legally allowed to work (even for unpaid internships) in the United States, they’re put at a disadvantage from the start — financially, academically and professionally.

For many college graduates, work experience in the form of internships, research programs and assistantships are weighed just as much as coursework and grades are. Between U.S. citizens, permanent residents and even international students (who are allowed to hold on-campus jobs and apply for internships), Documented Dreamers find themselves at the bottom of the pyramid despite being just as well rounded in academics, leadership positions and extracurriculars as the former. A majority of their college career is spent in accumulating bullet points for their resumes and CVs rather than actually applying for jobs and internships.

It isn’t until around sophomore year that aging out starts to become a reality for most Documented Dreamers. The most popular temporary remedy to aging out is to switch from a dependent visa to a student visa (F-1). There are two possible ways to do this — go to a U.S. embassy in one’s home country or apply for a Change of Status application.

The former requires a trip outside of the United States, and it may not always result in an approved application and creates the possibility of being denied entry back into the U.S for the unforeseeable future. In comparison, the latter is the “safer” option that allows an applicant to file for a Change of Status from within the United States. While the outcome is just as unpredictable as the previous option, this is a much more desired choice for many. The catch: capricious processing times at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). For this reason, many Documented Dreamers are advised to apply for a Change of Status as early as two years in advance.

The time between applying for a Change of Status and receiving a student visa can only be described as an avalanche of stress, anxiety and apprehension. With constant changes in processing times, a Change of Status can take months — sometimes even over a year. In some cases, the Documented Dreamer even faces the possibility of aging out before a decision is received. To put this into a college student’s perspective, a pending or rejected Change of Status application of an aged-out Documented Dreamer can severely disrupt their college career. Some might be asked to withdraw from courses, some are not permitted to enroll in courses for the following semesters, some are forced to prolong graduation, and some might even have to self-deport to a “home” country they barely have any memory of.

These complications have long term impacts on Documented Dreamers who are college students. The possibility of having to postpone graduation, or worse, withdrawing from the program and the university that they are enrolled in, is a very plausible reality. Because of this, the wait is frustrating, with no clear prediction of an outcome.

Even if a Documented Dreamer does successfully switch to a student visa from a dependent visa, there is another set of struggles waiting on the other end. As it is, many companies are hesitant to hire international students (who now include the freshly transitioned Documented Dreamers) due to complicated immigration laws and regulations. This, paired with a lack of work experience, puts them behind the curve in a very competitive job market. In addition to this, like all international students, Documented Dreamers must find an employer who is willing to sponsor them for an employment based visa. This is crucial if they want to continue living in the U.S. after their Optional Practical Training period is over.

This is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the trials and tribulations Documented Dreamers face when navigating college. The experience of switching from a dependent visa to a student visa does nothing but reinforce the sense of paranoia and lack of security that countless Documented Dreamers and their families have felt for years after legal immigration to the United States. Despite its ups and downs, college is supposed to be a time for personal and professional discovery. However, for a Documented Dreamer, these are forced to the back burner as they grapple to find a way just to stay in a country that they refer to as “home”.

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.

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Improve The Dream

We are a youth-led organization advocating for and supporting the 200k children of long-term visa holders who face self-deportation. Visit ImproveTheDream.org.