“Sometimes it does affect me, this news of tech layoffs. I shouldn’t have to worry about visa status but about academics and friends,” says 16-year-old Tanish Koparde of Texas.
The high schooler was born in India and raised in the US. Unlike many of his schoolmates, the Indian citizen sometimes feels vulnerable of being uprooted from the only country he calls home, where he has lived since he was a toddler.
The family is dependent on Tanish’s father’s H-1B visa to live in the country as they await their permanent residency in the decades-long green card queue.
High-skilled imported workers on H-1B visas have a 60-day grace period to transfer their visa to a new employer in the USA or start a life elsewhere, in case they are laid off. 75% of the allotted H-1B visas are granted to Indian professionals each year.
There are hundreds of thousands of Indian-born children on H-4 dependent visas in the USA who are internet-proficient media consumers. Apprehensions are alleviated with mass layoffs in the news.
High-skilled imported workers on H-1B visas have a 60-day grace period to transfer their visa to a new employer in the USA or start a life elsewhere, in case they are laid off. 75% of the allotted H-1B visas are granted to Indian professionals each year. There are hundreds of thousands of Indian-born children on H-4 dependent visas in the USA who are internet-proficient media consumers. Apprehensions are alleviated with mass layoffs in the news.
Tanish is preparing harder these days for ‘good grades’, staying ‘focused on what he has control over’ and ‘not worry’. He remembers his father’s layoff from a few years back. The family averted moving back to India as his father found a new job with just a few days left of the grace period. But the new job took his father to a faraway state long before they were reunited.
“I barely saw him. My mom used to be sad a lot,” says the teenager who feels that ‘there is more uncertainty’ for him compared to ‘a lot more stability for someone with citizenship’. His mother Sheetal Koparde, who has faced multiple breaks in her career due to the limitations of the H-4 EAD renewal process, says that her son ‘bore the brunt’ of their troubles, and his ‘grades fell’ that year.
Sociologist Dr Pallavi Banerjee of the University of Calgary, author of The Opportunity Trap: High-Skilled Workers, Indian Families, and the Failures of the Dependent Visa Program, acknowledges that uncertainty impacts educational and mental health outcomes.
She explains that many young children on H-4 visas ‘live with a constant fear of being upended from their life in the US’. They live ‘transnational lives with relatives in India, but their family, friends and community’ are in the US. They are ‘impacted deeply’ when their ‘sense of permanence and belonging’ is questioned.
“If they must leave the country that they have thought they belong to, the only country they know, within 60 days of their parent losing a job - the message they are getting is - you really don't belong here. It leaves them in a limbo. The way children process uncertainty is with fear and a sense of loss.”Dr Pallavi Banerjee, Sociologist
Despite ‘being aware’ of the pitfalls, New Jersey-based Sanaa Mahajan’s grades tumbled in 2021 when her father was not able to re-enter USA for a long time (due to lack of stamping appointments) after cremating her dadaji, who had succumbed to Covid-19 in India. Families of H-1B visa holders are among the most highly educated communities in America. To protect and prepare their children for any eventuality, most parents choose to be open about their limited immigration status. Sanaa remembers the ‘difficult chat’ about ‘fear of deportation’.
“I grew up here, but I might not be able to live here safely. Scary thoughts were constantly lurking at the back of my mind, which my America-born friends could never understand.”Sanaa Mahajan, Student
Along with persistent anxiety of being dependent on an H-1B holder parent for their status in the US, these Indians, Americans-in-waiting, also grapple with aging-out. 21 years is the age till they are permitted H-4 visas - after which they must leave the country. The Mahajan family breathed a huge sigh of relief as they no longer worry about Sanaa aging-out which would have compelled the youngster to self-deport and possibly return as a student.
Sanaa recalls her mother ‘crying happy tears’ the day their green card came in the mail after more than 14 years of a restricted American dream. For her, it meant freedom. She says, “I was concerned that I might have to go back to India. Now I will be able to stay here. I can do the same things that other kids do.”
Tanish and his family remain anxious about him aging-out as they are low down in the green card queue. He hopes to be a doctor and serve in the US military. However, that option is not for the Indian as his mother Sheetal Koparde says, “Tanish is very ambitious, but I have to, unfortunately, remind him that this is not your country yet!”
Speaking up for Indian youth is Improve the Dream, an organisation that advocates for legislative change to end aging out. India-born founder Dip Patel came to the US as a small child with his parents. With valid work visas, the family settled in Illinois, where he was raised. Dip returned to the US on a student visa upon aging-out.
He has been actively bringing the issue to the attention of lawmakers in Washington DC. “This pertains to children of legal immigrants - 250,000 individuals. They are raised here but do not have a path to citizenship. It is a problem that most Americans don't know exists,” he says. The group’s efforts created bipartisan support for America’s CHILDREN Act which proposes to end aging-out and provide a clear pathway to citizenship for children of long-term visa holders.
Youth Welcome the Recommendation to Extend the Grace Period For H-IB Workers
Various studies have revealed the mental health impact of the pandemic on American teenagers. Along with academic stresses and social dilemmas, Indian teenagers in the US have an added existential worry of being able to live in the country. 14-year-old Tanvi Marupally has been missing from her home in Arkansas since 17 January 2023. Her H-1B holder father Pavan has made online pleas to reassure her that his job is secure, hoping she hears him. He believes that with tech layoffs in the news, Tanvi ran away, fearing the family might have to move to India if he got laid off.
Indian teenagers grow up knowing America to be their only home yet remain acutely aware of the fault lines, especially amidst mass layoffs. The resilient youth welcome the recommendation to extend the grace period for H-1B workers who have lost their jobs from 60 days to 180 days, initiated by Ajay Jain Bhutoria, a member of President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.
Tanish says, “The extra grace period is a very good step in the right direction. It will help families. When it happened to me, it was very stressful, worrying about leaving school mid-year to a new country is very scary. President Biden should keep making it easier for documented immigrants to stay on.”
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)