WASHINGTON, D.C. — Over a million immigrants, mostly from India, are stuck with an immigration status akin to purgatory. They are not undocumented. They’re neither citizens nor on a pathway to citizenship. Most are white-collar professionals and they’re organizing to be included in Democrats’ massive budget reconciliation bill currently being negotiated on Capitol Hill.
“I considered myself a DREAMer,” says Dip Patel, 25, founder of Improve the Dream, an organization advocating for immigrant youth who grew up as dependents of long-term visa holders but then lose their legal status in the United States when they turn 21 years old. “I first heard about the DREAM Act when I was in high school and was disappointed when it failed in 2010, but I later learned I wouldn’t even qualify due to the requirement of being undocumented.”
Patel was born in India, migrated to the United States when he was 4 years- ld, and now works as a pharmacist in the Chicago area. His immigration status is not unique. An estimated 255,000 immigrant youth in the U.S. are awaiting employment-based green cards, and another 100,000 will lose their chance to become citizens through their parents’ employment-based petitions when they turn 21, according to research by the Cato Institute.
“Everything I know is American." — Pareen Mhatre
An estimated 200,000 young immigrants living legally in the U.S. as dependents of their parents on temporary work visas are aging out of the program into a precarious legal limbo.@devindwyer reports. https://t.co/xUIMIIBwpr pic.twitter.com/HG03GQ00dP
— ABC News Live (@ABCNewsLive) October 5, 2021
“I’m glad that this issue is finally receiving the recognition that it deserves,” Patel told Latino Rebels in a phone interview on Wednesday, “but I also hope we see action soon that delivers relief.”
In the Senate, Dick Durbin (D-IL) leads a working group of Democrats that includes all four Congressional Hispanic Caucus members in the upper chamber of Congress, plus Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY). This working group has been in negotiations for months with Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough over whether legalization programs can fit into a budget reconciliation bill.
So far, the Parliamentarian’s responses to Democrats’ immigration pitches have not been promising. MacDonough, a former immigration attorney for the Department of Justice who is now reportedly on leave from the Parliamentarian’s office while she undergoes stage 3 breast cancer treatments, has rejected all reform proposals.
“We’re not going to give up,” Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) said after MacDonough rejected a second pitch by the Democratic working group.
Still, a major group conspicuously absent from Democrats’ first two immigration pitches to the Parliamentarian so far are the nearly 600,000 immigrants who have been approved for family- or work-based legal status in the United States and are waiting for permanent status through work visas, according to data from USCIS.
These immigrants —400,000 of whom come from India— are stuck in a processing queue that can be centuries-long due to a provision of immigration law that says that only 7% of the annual visas allocated can come from a single country. This leaves many immigrants from India bound to the employer who sponsored their visa with no hope of a visa that would expand their employment options in the U.S.
“Life was great, initially as I worked via my H1B status,” said Prem Singh, 36, a tech worker in Boston who came to the U.S. for grad school in 2007 then found a job in the tech industry two years later that allowed him to stay in the country. “Then my company applied for my green card, but because I’m from India, even though my application is approved, I cannot get my green card.”
Singh told Latino Rebels that the pandemic exacerbated the difficulties of his immigration status. He was unable to travel back to India when relatives got sick because the consulates were closed and his work-based visa does not allow him to travel without permission.
“I’ve been living under the constant threat of being kicked out of the country if I ever lose my job,” Singh said. “I’d have to leave the country in 60 days if I lose my job.”
Latino Rebels asked some Democratic senators about visa backlog reform for immigrants like Singh and Patel.
“If visas are for people, yes, but not for businesses,” Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said last week when asked if he supports including relief visa backlog reform in Democrats’ social spending bill. “I’m not going to take care of businesses after 11 million not getting anything.”
Just asked @SenatorMenendez if he supports addressing the visa backlog in a Plan C pitch to the parliamentarian.
"If visas are for people, yes, but not for businesses," said Menendez. "I'm not going to take care of businesses after 11 million not getting anything."
— Pablo Manríquez ???? (@PabloReports) September 29, 2021
Around 10,5 million immigrants are estimated to be living in the U.S. undocumented, a group that is overwhelmingly Latino, according to Pew Research. Some advocates pushing for visa reform of Indian immigrants have complained that the undocumented community receives most of the political limelight when it comes to immigrant relief—though no immigrants have benefited from large-scale, permanent relief through legalization since 1986 when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
“Some members of Congress have argued that it is a more manageable and easily obtained change in immigration law,” Durbin said on Tuesday afternoon about addressing the visa backlog through budget reconciliation, “and we’ve got to focus on the 11 million who have been in non-legal status for many years.”
Asked if the priority is the 11 million undocumented immigrants versus the million-plus visa backlog, Durbin said that “There are people who want to deal with aspects of immigration, but want to pick and choose. We’re trying to be more comprehensive in our approach.”
The Illinois Democrat —who introduced the first version of the DREAM Act in 2001— did not elaborate on which members of Congress he was referring to who prefer to pick and choose. Meanwhile, a USCIS spokesperson told Roll Call that the agency is “reviewing all policies, operational procedures and options under the law that would allow for available green cards to either be issued before the end of the fiscal year or carried over into FY2022.”
None of this is enough for immigrants like Singh, who feels Congress is not listening to documented Americans stuck in visa limbo.
“In the Senate, we are completely being ignored,” he said. “We are not being seen as human. Businesses are exploiting us in this backlog. Senator Menendez and Durbin have met a lot of people in this situation but we feel that we are being totally ignored.”
Pablo Manríquez is Latino Rebels’ Washington correspondent. He is an immigrant from Santiago de Chile with a political science degree from the University of Notre Dame. The Washington Post calls him “an Internet folk hero.” Twitter: @PabloReports.