While America has the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legislation for undocumented young immigrants who entered the US as children (also referred to as 'dreamers') providing them a temporary reprieve from deportation and a work permit, there is no such legislation for documented or legal dreamers.
There are presently 200,000 plus children and young adults living in the US – also called documented dreamers – who came to the country as dependents of long-term non-immigrant visa holders (H-1B, L-1, or E-2).
A majority of them are of Indian origin. They attend American schools and graduate from American universities but because they maintain their legal status, they are not qualified for protection under DACA or for the work authorisation that comes with it.
A reason for not having separate legislation could be the anticipation that they are already being covered by their parents’ green card application for permanent residence. But in the last ten years, green card applications have been stuck in a backlog due to the outdated country cap rule. The process that took two to four years has now increased to ten to twenty years or more.
Ageing Out in America
While a spate of legislation is underway to change the country cap rule, the children who turn 21 before their parents qualify for a green card are losing both their dependent status as well as their eligibility for derivative permanent residence through their parents’ application.
This phenomenon known as “ageing out", has forced thousands of documented dreamers to leave the country they grew up in, or find a series of temporary statuses like F-1 (the international student visa).
To stay on and work after they graduate, they have to enter the H-1B lottery. If they get lucky and win the lottery, their employer must sponsor them for a green card. Then they enter the green card queue behind everyone else – despite already waiting many years as dependents on their parents' application.
The stilted immigration system doesn’t work well for the children of documented immigrants even while they are minors. For bystanders, their lives are not that different from other American kids.
They enjoy football games and 4th of July fireworks like other Americans yet the ‘documented dreamers’ face barriers unique to them, at every step.
Why the CHILDREN Act is Important
Nineteen-year-old Anagh, a sophomore at Ohio State University, is on H-4 visa. He said he has always been ineligible to receive federal aid and most academic scholarships despite his strong academic performance and stellar test scores.
"I’ve had to forgo any paid internship opportunities as I don’t have a work permit, and because most top companies in my area of interest require internship experience in college, I’ve had to pass up lots of chances to get my life started.”Anagh
To plug in this legal loophole, on 1 July 2021, the bipartisan legislation, America's CHILDREN (Cultivation of Hope and Inclusion for Long-term Dependents Raised and Educated Natively) Act was introduced in the Congress.
Through this legislation, for the first time, the child dependents of long-term visa holders would gain a pathway to obtaining green cards, as long as they have lived in the United States for 10 years and have graduated from a college or university in the country.
Dip Patel, founder of Improve The Dream, an organisation run by young immigrants, that has been working since 2017 to raise awareness on the plight of documented dreamers said, "I found a basic lack of understanding of the problem and that is what has led me to start long-term relationship building with elected officials through ‘Improve the Dream’."
When asked how the CHILDREN Act will help, he said, "First, it will permanently end the ageing out. Second, it will give work authorisation. Third, it also allows the documented dreamers to keep the priority dates that they had under their parents' application when they apply for green card."
He is delighted about the introduction of the CHILDREN Act, but he has been simultaneously working on other initiatives to help. “While the House version of the Dream and Promise Act (HR.6) includes many documented dreamers, the Senate version of the Dream Act excludes them by requiring applicants to be undocumented,” he said.
His organisation has been calling Senators to request a change in the proposed Dream Act of 2021 (S.264) to include documented dreamers in all future Dreamer legislations.
Neil Makhija, executive director at IMPACT, America’s leading South Asian advocacy organisation, applauds the CHILDREN Act for giving hope to documented dreamers "who are American in every sense of the word but for an immigration policy that is unfair, unjust, and unwise."
Overhauling the broken immigration system in the US will take time. Till then, focused legislations like America's CHILDREN Act will calm the frayed nerves of young documented dreamers and help them fulfill their American dream.
(The author is a public policy professional based in Arlington, Massachusetts.)