What factors would you say a high-school student in the US should consider, for her college-application process?
Grades? Extra-curriculars? Projects? Finding ways to hone leadership skills?
Watching Sarvani go through her day as a high school senior at Liberty High School, running track, gearing up to lead student clubs, focusing on classes and schoolwork, you could be forgiven for thinking of her as just another enthusiastic, active and engaged student.
She was largely raised in the US, speaks with an unmistakably American accent and attended public school all her life here.
In short, the US is home to her.
Speaking to her, you'd have no reason to doubt her Indian-American identity, her path towards higher education and her eventual life as a productive adult in the US.
Sarvani was in the 8th grade when she learned from her parents, that due to a logjam in the legal immigration process towards Permanent Residency, she would essentially age out of “dependent immigration status” at 21 and would therefore be ineligible to stay in the US, on her current immigration status.
And despite having arrived and stayed in the US completely legally, Sarvani's future in the US is under doubt.
How do you tell a child who has been raised in the US since she was four, that her reality does not match up to her understanding of herself?
How do you tell her that despite feeling completely at home in her Lake St. Louis community, her papers tell a different story?
A story that denies her sense of belonging to this country and a future in it.
Sarvani is ineligible to work in the US, obtain financial aid and even federal student loans are out of reach for her. Her immigration situation means that she could be considered an “international student” at college, in the same country in which she attended kindergarten!
This is a fact so bizzare that only a thorough understanding of the systemic issues of legal immigration in America would equip one to even remotely comprehend it. Indeed, Senators she has spoken to, were unaware that such a thing could even exist and that this was a problem children from immigrant families that have lived here for legally for decades, are facing.
For all the nuanced complexities of identity situated at the cross-roads of culture, geography, education, social norms, history, politics and behavior, immigration is utterly black-and-white, almost coldly so…
It tells you where you belong even if what you feel within is entirely incongruous.
In a conversation about her college-hunt, started early on account of her complicated immigration circumstances, in a moment that belied her jarring disbelief, Sarvani said, “I felt at home here, I never thought I'd be considered anything other than American”.
I felt the weight of this contradiction in her voice
Her experience is an unprecedented one.
As the daughter of Indian-born immigrants to the US, whose Permanent Residency application are currently languishing in a decades long backlog, born out of archaic immigration policies, teens like Sarvani represent the human cost of broken immigration laws.
Having immigrated at the age of 4, as a dependent to her mother’s immigration status, Sarvani now faces deportation at 21, when age will render her dependent status invalid and force her to leave the only country she has ever truly known as home.
At the beginning of this piece, we asked you to consider the factors a high-school student ought to be thinking about, when planning for college.
This is the issue that sits front and center of Sarvani's college aspirations.
An issue born solely out of a system of legal immigration that fails those who followed its every demand dutifully, while contributing their skills to society, along with taxes to fund programs like Medicare and Social Security that they themselves cannot benefit from.
Her mother Krishnapriya has her own story of the immigrant struggle, having first arrived to start a PhD program in 2006. She talks of being required to take pre-requisite English courses at the University- something she still recollects as a valuable experience. She looks back at the help she received from roommates and friends and the challenge of eventually moving to suburbs of St. Louis, MO for work living in a locality where they were the only family of color.
She remembers the immense complexity of visas, work authorizations and more, and remains grateful for the unflinching support of superiors at her workplace in navigating that foreign path.
In the years since she first came to the US, Krishnapriya has cultivated a vibrant career in Regional Planning, a voice in activism and deep roots here in her Lake St. Louis community.
The fact that the system of legal immigration leaves a person like Krishnapriya with “what-if's” for her family, after having done everything required of her and offering her skills and education to the US for over a decade, makes it glaringly obvious that the system is deeply, deeply broken.
In our conversation, there are points where Krishnapriya regrets delays in filing her Green Card petition, long before the backlog and its downstream consequences could ever have been foreseen.
While her regret is entirely understandable as a mother, she is left blaming herself for a systemic fault entirely beyond her control.
How did we get to the point, where immigration issues become so chronic as to be passed from one generation to another, like some sort of perverse legacy?
Legal immigration now imposes burdens that span generations- what greater condemnation can there possibly be of a failed legal immigration system?
Sarvani is not alone in the unusual challenge she faces. Her family knows of others in the same boat; some in deep denial over the staggering consequences of their immigration realities, others too fearful of voicing their distress.
Her situation is likely to mirror that of thousands of other children of immigrant parents, brought over to the US legally, as children who will similarly age out as dependents of their parents’ immigration statuses at 21 years of age.
Indian-born individuals that applied for Permanent Residency in 2009 under the most common category of filing: Employment-based category 2 (EB-2) have a visa available to them in July 2020, as of the writing of this piece.
In the past one year, this date for which visas are now available, has moved barely two months, a good indication that wait times are likely to get much worse without serious legislative action on the matter, leaving children like Sarvani at risk, with few good options for college and life ahead.
She has not, however, resigned to this issue. Ever since first learning of the issue, Sarvani has joined her mother in her activism through the Skilled Immigrants in America (SIIA) organization, along with raising awareness at school.
The grassroots activism has led Krishnapriya and Sarvani to the corridors of power, into offices of senators and state representatives.
Support has been encouraging, particularly at school with campaigns like “Letters 4 Fairness”, with an ambitious goal of sending 100,000 letters to Congress, urging legislative action to address the massive Green Card backlog; concrete action however, remains elusive.
In July 2019, the US House of Representative passed H.R. 1044, with a view to reform the country-specific quotas that have contributed to the Green Card backlog followed by Senate Bill S. 386, co-sponsored by a coalition of bipartisan senators was also introduced in the Senate in early 2019, with heated discussions ensuing over the course of the year.
Meanwhile, in the legal-immigrant community there is little optimism regarding the passage of S. 386 or any other resolution to the issue of country-specific quotas. The general consensus is that more pressing matters, the Covid-19 pandemic in particular as well as the madness of elections will, as usual, push aside these time-sensitive issues while lives hang in the balance, tentatively rooted in American soil.
Sarvani meanwhile, is quickly finding out that the deadline for action might be sooner than she thought. She would age out at 21, but college starts at 18. One year away.
And that means, the work to prepare logistically, emotionally and financially for a hugely disruptive decision, starts now.
The very existence of a problem like Sarvani's, is a damning indictment of the US's legal immigration system and desperate plea for much-needed change.
Senate Discussion on Bill (07/23/20)
S386 Amendment deal
History of the bill in the Senate
Senate action on bill (12/18/19)
S4243 Bill to protect children of immigrant workers from
S2603 Bill Resolving Extended Limbo for Immigrant Employees and Families
Washington Post story about the situation
Image on the cover was from an article from April 2019 in The American Bazaar that spoke about a petition urging Congress to protect ‘aging out’ children of H-1B