Bhaskar Chitraju came to the United States from India at the age of 13, and has never been back, living legally in the U.S. for the past 10 years. In Southgate, Mich., he played soccer, excelled at Quiz Bowl, and indulged in Battlestar Galactica marathons with his buddies. High school was easy for him, he remembers, because people accepted him for who he was.
However, the aspiring business owner is as far from American citizenship as the day he stepped off the plane. And two years ago, a clock started ticking down on the only life he knows.
His father, a computer programmer, applied for a green card as soon as he could file the paperwork. Bhaskar would have benefited from that petition, but at 21, he was hit by a provision called "aging out" — a consequence of a visa processing backlog that affects thousands of aspiring Americans a year. He continues to live in the United States on a student visa, but Bhaskar may be legally obligated to leave after he graduates from business school next year.
"I feel frustrated and helpless most of the time," said Bhaskar, who insists he is determined to play by the rules,. "There's so much uncertainty in my life — I don't know if I'll be here next year or not."
Reform for the Younger Generation
As green card backlogs delay or derail their chances for citizenship, people like Bhaskar are pinning their hopes on a controversial piece of legislation that was meant to address the quandaries of illegal — not legal — immigrants. The DREAM Act, or Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, is a federal bill that would provide immigrant youth who enroll in college or serve in the military an expedited path to citizenship. It would also make it easier for states to offer undocumented immigrants in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
The prospect of legalization for undocumented aliens, even a small portion of them, stirs passions on all sides of the immigration debate. Opponents say the DREAM Act amounts to amnesty for lawbreakers, while proponents stress it would benefit only those who entered the U.S. before age 16, have lived here for at least five years and have a clean criminal record. Versions of the bill foundered in the Senate four times since 2001, but bipartisan support may favor supporters this time around. In March, senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., reintroduced the bill in the Senate, while Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., introduced a similar version in the House.
If it were to pass, the DREAM Act would immediately make 360,000 undocumented high school graduates ages 18 to 24 eligible for legal residency, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Bhaskar hopes the DREAM Act will help him, too, even though he has never been undocumented. "I would be so happy," he says. "I could work to pay my tuition. Most of my problems would be solved."
After 9/11, immigrants faced increased security restrictions, severe backlogs in processing visas and an increasingly histrionic debate over immigration. Young immigrants — the documented battling new barriers to permanent residency, the undocumented in fear of deportation — quickly flocked to the DREAM Act. Its supporters, many of them undocumented, lobbied politicians, organized marches and spoke to the media, often at the risk of exposing their status.
In online discussion forums, so-called "legal DREAMies" draw parallels between documented and undocumented kids who were brought to the United States at a young age. Jason, a naturalized American from Barbados, is a frequent poster on dreamact.info, an activist site. Having experienced the immigration system both as an undocumented teen and a green card petitioner, he believes both groups deserve an expedited path to citizenship. "You can't go ahead in life always looking over your shoulder," he said. "The DREAM Act should be a comprehensive immigration reform for the younger generation."
Legal immigrants say they need the DREAM Act because the current system punishes people who try to play by the rules. Every year, tens of thousands of skilled foreign workers, from geneticists to nurses to engineers, enter the United States on work visas. Many return to their home countries, but others decide to settle here. Last year 166,511 foreign workers and their family members received green cards, but many more remained in limbo between temporary status and permanent residency.
One such green card hopeful is Ganesh, an Indian computer consultant who came to the United States with his wife and son seven years ago. His visa, the H1-B, allows him to apply for a family green card through his employer, a process he expected would take two to three years. His son is now 19 and a student at the University of Michigan. "No one can differentiate him from an American," said Ganesh, but he worries that his son's chances of citizenship will be derailed on his 21st birthday.
Nearly a million people may be stuck in the current green card backlog, according to independent estimates — both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security plead ignorance on the exact number. Even at its most efficient, the green card process can take more than a year, as each petition requires the approval of the Department of Labor, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. However, an annual per-country cap means that people from high-demand countries like Mexico, India, China and the Philippines have to wait years for a space to open up in the line for permanent residency. Fluctuations in processing times can cause further unpredictable delays. Many families wait more than a decade before receiving a final yea or nay on their green card petition.
Young people hoping to secure permanent residency through their immigrant parents have the most to lose from the delay. Families may petition for their green cards together, but dependents who turn 21 before reaching the final step must restart the process on their own. No matter how many years they have lived here, their options for staying in the U.S. are the same as any foreigner's: They can marry a citizen, seek a student visa or try to secure a temporary worker visa like the H1-B, which also is subject to quotas. In essence, they go to the end of the green card line, possibly to wind up in some future backlog.
With no end in sight to the traffic jam, Ganesh sought reassurance in the DREAM Act. He reasoned that his son, a graduate of an American high school who has not left the country since arriving seven years ago, fit all the requirements. He later realized that the bill refers specifically to people who are under threat of deportation — i.e. the undocumented. He has not had the heart to tell his son, who is in the middle of exams. "I do not think politicians are aware of people like us," Ganesh says. "If the senators realized how many people are in the same boat, I'm sure they would change the wording of the bill to preserve its spirit."
That's not a universal understanding of the bill's spirit.
Some scoff at the idea that legal immigrants might lay claim to hardships of the core DREAM Act population. Undocumented youth live in constant danger of deportation, and they face a mandatory 10-year sanction if they go back to their home countries to apply for an American visa. Michael Olivas, director of the Institute of Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston, bristles at the suggestion that legal students should benefit from a legislative victory by their undocumented peers. "If one of the (legal) kids ages out, they can go back to India and reapply," he says. "The fact that these people feel sorry for themselves, well, that's just not the Trail of Tears. They have many advantages. If they try to clamber aboard, that's going to doom the DREAM Act."
Advocates like Olivas are loath to make any changes to the DREAM Act that could endanger its long-fought support. In the absence of broader reform, narrow interest groups end up fighting for scraps of political will, says Aman Kapoor, founder and president of Immigration Voice, an advocacy group for legal immigrants. "Illegal immigration is a very important issue, because people are being exploited. But it has completely overshadowed legal immigrants," he says.
In 2007, for instance, the House introduced a little-noticed provision to reduce the green card backlog by allowing unused visas to roll over from one year to another. That change would have made a major difference for people like Ganesh, but it was lost in the larger debate over border control and Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids.
Meanwhile, DREAM Act champion Sen. Durbin also advocates restrictions on the H1-B visa, the prime entry route for skilled immigrant workers. Kapoor sees a pattern. "Sometimes our members feel it would be better to flush their passport down the toilet. At least that way you'll have your champions in Congress," he said.
Some DREAM Act aspirants may take that idea literally. Lynne McCranor, an England-born ophthalmic researcher at the University of Indiana, says that bureaucratic delays caused her son to miss the family's green card approval by just a few months. After struggling to do things by the book, she'd encourage him to drop his student visa and become illegal if it would help him gain permanent residency. "It makes a mockery of the DREAM Act, and I think the politicians need to realize that," she said. "You're forcing people to make very ugly choices."
There are no guarantees that visa holders who deliberately become illegal would qualify for the DREAM Act — in fact, they could face steep penalties. Mark Hayes, a spokesman for DREAM Act co-sponsor Lugar, says that problems like the visa backlog will be weighed in the next round of comprehensive immigration reform — a weighty political undertaking that the Obama administration looks increasingly likely to postpone.
Here, Not Anywhere
Bhaskar Chitraju said he will support the DREAM Act whether or not it resolves his own visa problems. At the same time, he wonders why the very real prospect of losing his American life seems to count less because he is documented. He recently toyed with the idea of moving to Canada, which has a more open immigration policy for educated foreigners. India is also technically an option, though he doesn't know anyone there.
He has rejected both options. "I want to start my business and live my life here. The people I care about are here," he said. "I don't want to be somewhere else for the sake of a permanent residency card."
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