Washington September 5: A DACA supporter holds a sign at a rally in Washington DC on September 5, 2017, the day on which former President Trump announced that he would end the DACA program. (Shutterstock)
By Manuel Holgin
Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) held a hearing titled, “Removing Barriers to Legal Migration to Strengthen our Communities and Economy.” The hearing was held to discuss how our current immigration system is failing due to its outdated processes and what can be done to update it. Three feature witnesses testified, Ms. Athulya Rajakumar, Graduate of the University of Texas at Austin; Professor Stephen Legomsky, the John S. Lehman Professor at the Washington University School of Law; and Mr. Lynden D. Melmed, Partner at Berry Appleman & Leiden, LLP.
America’s CHILDREN Act
America’s CHILDREN Act was introduced to protect the 200,000 documented dreamers living in the United States from “aging out” and being forced to self-deport from the only place most know as home. Documented dreamers are young immigrants brought to the country when their parents receive any of the different provisional nonimmigrant visa classifications. Though document dreamers derive from any part of the world, most are from China and India. Unlike DACA recipients who are allowed to work in the US and have temporary deportation protections, documented dreamers cannot work and are faced with self-deportation if they do not attain a different temporary or permanent status. Many parents who came here will apply for a Green Card but will wait in the backlog for years, so their children will age out waiting for their place in a Green Card queue.
Such is the case of Athulya Rajakumar, one of the feature witnesses in the hearing. Rajakumar came to the United States at age four, accompanied by her brother, age six, when their mother received an H-1B work visa sponsored by Microsoft. In 2012 Rajkumar’s mother was able to apply for a Green Card, but after waiting a decade in the backlog, Rajakumar aged out at the age of 21 in January 2020. She spoke of experiences any other child in the country lives through, waiting in line for the midnight premiere of a movie, popsicles on the Fourth of July, and baseball games. “These experiences, uniquely American, are not only unforgettable but a part of who I am today,” said Rajakumar. She began to feel the control her visa status had over her life. She could not participate in foreign exchange programs because she could not be promised the ability to return to the US. She was considered an international student when applying to colleges even though she had attended elementary, middle, and high school in the US. And she did not qualify for any financial aid. She recalls being required to take additional tests and essays to apply for college and was asked, “What can you contribute to our institution as a resident from your country?” “I grew up in Seattle, Washington; Starbucks was founded here. I don’t know how much more American I can get,” she retorted. Regardless, she did all she was asked of and more to get direct admission to her dream college and a significant journalism program.
Eventually, the anxiety of living in constant precarity began to take a toll on her and her brother’s mental health. “As H-4 dependents, my brother and I legally needed to be enrolled as full-time students in order to comply with our visa status and remain in the country lawfully,” said Rajakumar. “Taking a leave of absence from school to address serious mental health concerns was not an option.” Her brother intended to study immigration law to support those experiencing the same difficulties as him and his sister. Sadly, Rajkumar’s brother took his own life before he could start at the University of Washington. Though they had just lost someone in their family, Rajakumar and her mother both had to be back in school and work weeks after the funeral. Inevitably, their visa status governed their lives once again. This time, it took from them their need to mourn their loss. Rajakumar said, “To be considered an alien, an outsider, in the only place you know to call home. That is a different kind of pain that only me and the 200,000 other children in my position share.”
Documented Dreamers & the Backlog
The Americas CHILDREN Act would help documented dreamers like Rajakumar and 200,000 others. It would provide a pathway to permanent residency for child dependents of long-term visa holders who have maintained status in the United States for ten years and have graduated from an institution of higher education. It would establish age-out protections that lock in a child’s age on the date they file for a green card rather than the final action date. It would provide work authorization if they are at least 16 years old and permit children aged out to preserve the original priority date for subsequent petitions.
While the Act would help the documented dreamers, an additional barrier in the immigration system is the backlog itself. Prepared testimonies by Lynden Melmed and Stephen Legomsky point out the faults in our immigration system and the long-term effects on the country. Both Melmed and Legomsky cite that the public thinks the system allows anyone to immigrate into the country and that it’s easy to immigrate through employment channels. But that is far from the truth.
There are categories and subcategories that applicants must meet to immigrate. They must fill out thousands of documents by hand because electronic filing is not an option and will have to wait years before the government processes it. “Not since the Immigration Act of 1990, however, has Congress taken any major action to update our nation’s policies on legal immigration,” Points out Legomsky. Melmed states that delays of green cards are just symptoms and that “the cause is an outdated Green Card system that undervalues skilled immigration, which in turn leads to untenable backlogs.” Melmed’s testimony highlights that the United States has not updated the annual caps despite the growing demand for green cards. Highskill laborers and international students, in turn, will look for jobs in other countries, such as Canada. A decrease would hinder the US economic growth. Healthcare is another industry that could be affected by the long wait times. “In 2018, more than 2.6 million immigrants, including 314,000 refugees, were employed as healthcare workers. 1.5 million of them were working as doctors, registered nurses, and pharmacists.”
Legomsky’s written testimony provides five measures that could help clear up a significant portion of the backlog. His first measure recommended “raising the worldwide ceilings.” He offers three ways to do this. His second measure is “reclassifying family-sponsored “2-As” as immediate relatives.” His third measure is “raising the per-country caps.” Fourth, “allowing early filling off applications.” And finally, “repealing the 3/10 and permanent bars for prior unlawful presence.”
Hope for Documented Dreamers
After answering questions from subcommittee members, the three witnesses provided sufficient evidence to show how fractured the immigration system is and that it must be addressed immediately. “I’m glad to see that we might have taken some steps forward and made progress today,” said Senator Padilla. The hearing concluded in a promising direction after successfully securing a verbal commitment from Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Durbin to work on legislation to help documented dreamers like Rajakumar. Addressing Durbin, Cornyn said, “I think this is something we ought to be able to find a solution to.” Durbin acknowledged Cornyn and saluted the panel of witnesses, “You may have seen history in the making,” said Durbin. “A public declaration by a senator that they are actually going to try to legislate is almost historic around here, so who knows, this may end well.”