4S RANCH — For the last six years, Sooraj Sasindran and his family of four have lived a life that is resolutely all-American. Sasindran — a 36-year-old engineer from India — bought a home in the 4S Ranch neighborhood, where he and his wife balance working remotely with parenting their two daughters.
In a pre-pandemic world, they hosted barbecues with friends on the weekends, spent days at the beach and mapped out their next trip across the United States. It’s an idyllic life the Sasindrans have worked hard to build for their children — a normalcy that could end if immigration reform isn’t passed, he said.
Sasindran works in the United States on an H1-B guest worker visa, sponsored and employed by a local tech company. Spouses and children of these foreign workers are allowed to reside in the US on accompanying statuses, known as the H-4 visa.
Sasindran’s eight-year-old daughter — born in India — has spent most of her life in San Diego on an H-4.
“She’s completely American,” Sasindran said, adding that they moved to California when she was still a baby.
A growing line
The family has filed for green cards, but the wait for Indian nationals to receive them is exponential — possibly crossing into five decades, according to data analysis from the CATO Institute. Employment-based green cards are capped at 7% for each country, leading to long lines for those born in India or China.
President Joseph R. Biden’s proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 could offer relief if passed. It would remove country caps — the cause of green card backlogs — and protect children from “aging out” of their status when they turn 21, as per current immigration law.
“As long as immigration petition is filed before the age of 21, the dependent’s age is locked in,” said Tifany Markee of the bill’s proposed reform. Markee, a partner at Milner & Markee in Rancho Bernado, added that children could also be eligible for work permits and social security numbers if the bill passed.
“They can work at after-school jobs, do summer internships at college because they’re no longer just H-4 [visa holders] who only have the ability to go to school,” Markee said. “So I think it’s a huge improvement.”
Sasindran is still cautious about optimism, however. Unclear if the backlog would ever resolve, he decided to apply for Canadian permanent residency a few years ago. The family was on the verge of moving north until the pandemic hit.
“She wants to be an actor when she grows up,” Sasindran said of his daughter’s early ambitions. “But I can never encourage it because I know if she’s still on H4, she can’t do it.”
Applications from 2010 are now being processed in Sasindran’s specific green card category, according to the State Department’s February visa bulletin. Because his application has gone forward, Sasindran and his daughter have officially stated an intention to immigrate. He fears this could later cause conflict in case his daughter doesn’t receive her green card in time, forcing him to consider temporary options like a student visa.
It’s difficult for a foreign national to have a pending intent to immigrate while also applying for non-immigrant status, Markee explained.
“In those situations, you’re likely going to have to argue flexibility to consulates,” she said.
Hope for more focused reform
The bill’s success at passing as comprehensive reform has been debated ever since its introduction to Congress earlier this year. Among changes for H-4 dependents, it includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, farmworkers and increases provisions like diversity visas.
“My personal opinion is that we’re going to see more of a piecemeal approach,” said Markee. “I don’t believe we’re going to get bipartisan support for the entire bill because it’s incredibly all-encompassing. I think the reality is that it’s going to pass into smaller pieces relating to something particular.”
It’s a sentiment Dip Patel, 25, shares. A Canadian citizen also on a temporary work visa, Patel founded Improve The Dream, a movement advocating for “documented dreamers.”
For the last few years, his work has been expansive; he and other Improve The Dream community members have met with bi-partisan congressional members to ask that all foreign individuals brought to the US as children are protected by legislature, regardless of how they entered the US.
“We ask that they include all children who grew up here, whether they are undocumented or documented,” he said.
Patel’s initial hope was that documented dependents be included in Senator Dick Durbin’s DREAM Act, which only granted eligibility to those who had entered the US unlawfully or lost a valid status. House Democrats later voted against an amendment that would include documented dependents in the act.
Like Markee, Patel believes that more focused legislation is key to their success. Improve The Dream’s efforts paid off when dependents on visa statuses such as the H-4 were included in the House Dream and Promise Act of 2021, passed in the House this week. More than 150,000 documented dreamers could receive permanent residency if the act is passed, estimates the Migration Policy Institute.
“It’s the first step forward, that we’re finally being heard,” said Patel. “As a whole, we’re excited that we’re included as Dreamers as well.”
The House is set to vote on the bill this week, the first step in creating a path to citizenship for more than 200,000 children awaiting green cards.
“Whatever happens going forward, I hope we get a solution for permanently aging out [of status],” Patel said. “No child who grows up here should have to face that.”
To stay or to go
The news is heartening to many in the Improve The Dream community, which consists of thousands of parents and children across Slack channels, Facebook groups and other messaging platforms. Over the last few years, they’ve brainstormed ways to make their voices visible on social media and draw more congressional attention to their cause.
Ravi Gosai, 35, a resident from Cypress, California, is one of them. An active Twitter user, he’s been hoping to bring light to his two sons’ situation — especially as his older son Daksh, 14, begins to consider college.
“I have to take my ACTS, my SATs,” Daksh said, who was also admitted into a college preparatory program at his high school. “But I’m worried it’ll all go down the drain if I don’t get a green card. I won’t be able to work on my current status to help out my family. If I shift over to a student visa, I won’t be eligible for many scholarships or any in-state tuition.”
Without significant change, their future in America is up for debate, Gosai said.
“I am hopeful that the Dream and Promise Act passes, but am still skeptical about what the final bill will look like,” he said. “Sometimes I think, ‘Am I playing with their future?’ I started feeling guilty about it because I may have chosen a country without thinking of the outcome of it.”
Daksh and his young brother, Vansh, 12, were raised entirely in Orange County. They love basketball and call themselves avid Lakers fans.
“America is all that makes sense to them,” their father said. “It’s the only language they speak.”